The Lord's Day Morning
February 10, 2013
“Like His Brethren in All Things”
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Hebrews chapter 2. We’re going to be looking at verses 14 to 18 together today. There is a haunting phrase in Andrew Peterson's wrenchingly beautiful song, “You’ll Find Your Way.” Fathers, if you haven't heard that song, I'd commend you to listen to it and even pray through it thinking about your sons. It's a – the lyric is a father thinking about his son and even speaking to his son before his son knows what he's going to be facing in life. And he tells his son, “You’re going to grow up, son, and you’re going to get lost. And when you get lost, the only way that you’ll ever find your way home is to follow the old path.” It's a wise and telling and deeply moving song. But the haunting phrase in that song that I've thought about over and over is when he says to his son, he's telling him some things that are going to be coming up in his life — your first kiss, your first crush, the first time you know you’re not enough — and that's the phrase that gets me, “the first time you know you’re not enough.” I don't know all that Andrew Peterson means by that but I know what that means myself. I have experienced the meaning of that phrase ubiquitously in my own life. There are many situations and circumstances where I am not enough.
And the author of Hebrews, for two chapters now, has been pressing home this truth to us, that there is never a time when Jesus is not enough. His great theme is that Jesus is better, Jesus is enough, He's more than enough. And he's emphasized this to us in various ways. We've pondered the great truths together a couple of weeks ago of Hebrews chapter 2 verse 8 when we said that God has put everything under Jesus’ feet, even when it doesn't look like it. And then in verse 10 last week we thought about the fact that God is at work in Jesus’ sufferings and ours and if He's at work in Jesus’ suffering and ours, and He is, then there is no such thing as meaningless suffering in our experience. There's no such thing as wasted suffering; there's no such thing as purposeless suffering in our lives. God has a good purpose at work in Jesus’ suffering and ours.
And today we come to a passage about temptation and it's very timely and it's very helpful. And so we're going to read it, but before we do let's look to God in prayer and ask for His help and blessing.
Heavenly Father, we need Your help in temptation. Your Son taught us to pray, ‘Lead us not into temptation,’ and He taught us to pray that because He understood temptation Himself. We’re sometimes too glib about our temptations, but other times, O Lord, we're so overwhelmed that we have no idea what to do. Teach us from Your Word what to do in temptation. Make us now to listen and believe as Your Word is read, in Jesus' name, amen.
This is God's Word. Hear it in Hebrews chapter 2 beginning in verse 14:
“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, 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. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
I don't know what temptations you brought with you today when you came to this place but I do know that you brought them with you. They’re all around us and inside us and they often vex us and sometimes we don't know what to do. And the one-point sermon that the author of Hebrews is preaching to us today is this — Jesus knows how to help you in temptation because He's been tempted Himself. Jesus knows how to help you in temptation and He knows how to deliver you in places where you have no idea how you’re going to be delivered. And he walks you through five truths to get you to that one point and I'm going to walk with you through those truths in this passage today.
JESUS KNOWS AND UNDERSTANDS
The first one you’ll see in verse 14 where he says, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things.” It's another one of these sentences — and this is what, about the fourth time now, we've seen just in this chapter the author of Hebrews give us a sentence that we could read and close our Bibles and go home and think about for a week and we wouldn't come close to exhausting the glory of his meaning. But what's he mean when he says that? He means this. Because we live in flesh and blood, Jesus came and He took our flesh and blood forever upon Himself. Christians believe that we are beings that are made of flesh and blood. We’re not simply spirits that are waiting to escape this chamber that we live in. We believe that in eternity we will be embodied. We are a body/soul composite reality and our spirit can't even express its full potential without our bodies and so Jesus, when He came to save us, took on our flesh. And He didn't just take it for a little while and He didn't just take it partially, He took on our humanity fully and permanently.
The church fathers boggled at this truth. They said, “He became what He was not without ceasing to be who He was so that He could make you to be what you are not and like Him.” And again, we could meditate on that forever. And in fact, the author of Hebrews here in 2:14 has juxtaposed something that we need to comprehend; at least we need to reflect on for a few moments. Think of what he has already said in Hebrews 1:4. He said that Jesus is superior to the angels and he's emphasized it by saying He's the radiance of God's glory. He's more excellent than the angels. He sits at the right hand of the Father. He's superior to the angels. But here in 2:14 he says He is like you. Now ponder that for a minute my friends. He's superior to angels but He is like you in every respect. That's emphasized not only in verse 14 but again in verse 17. Jesus is superior to the angels but He's made like us in every way.
What's the author of Hebrews wanting us to reflect on? It's simply this. He wants us to understand that God knows what it is like to live in your skin. God knows what it is like to live in your skin, not just because He made you, though He did, not just because He knit you together in your mother's womb, though He did, but because in His Son He has taken on our flesh and blood. You know how it is sometimes when you’re young and you look at other people and you think, “I can't believe they’re doing that. I can't believe they've gone that way.” You feel very imperious, very superior, very condescending. And then an older, wiser, kinder Christian says to you, “You know, you ought to walk a mile in her shoes before you make that judgment.” Do you understand that Jesus didn't just come and walk a mile in your shoes? When He took on your flesh and blood, He took on your flesh and blood forever. Do you realize that? That there is a human being sitting at the right hand of God the Father Almighty right now ruling this universe by the word of His power? There is flesh and blood at the right hand of the Father Almighty. And what does that mean for you and me? It means that our God understands from the inside the temptations and sufferings that we face as humans.
Now we've recently gathered a support group in our church. There's an announcement mentioned at the bottom of the Morning Worship Guide about it to help give support and fellowship for friends and family members of those who are struggling with various kinds of addictions. And a friend of mine was saying to me that in the course of that sharing and mutual support that it has struck him that the two most powerful words in our language are, “Me too.” You know, you get into a room and you think that you’re the only one that is going through something and suddenly there are other brothers and sisters in Christ and they are in the exact same fight that you’re in. And the power of them being able to say, “Me too,” is incredibly heartening and encouraging.
Well you understand what the author of Hebrews is saying to you? He's saying, “Your Savior can look you in the eye because He's inside your skin and He can say, ‘Me too. I know what that's like. I am fully human. I have experienced suffering and temptation and in fact I have experienced temptations that you cannot even begin to comprehend.’” The author of Hebrews is telling us this because he wants you to know that God is in your skin.
JESUS DIED TO DESTROY DEATH
There's a second thing that he says on the way to this point about Jesus being able to help us in temptation and you see it in verses 14 and 15. Look at the words. “That through death he might destroy the one that has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” What's he mean by that? He means that because we were dead in sin and because we were enslaved to Satan, Jesus died to destroy death and set us free. Have you ever wondered how far Jesus had to go to set us free from enslavement to Satan and to the death which is the wages of sin? He had to go all the way through from temptation to suffering to death and back. That's how far He had to go. And the author of Hebrews is reminding you of that here. That's how far your Savior had to go.
JESUS RESCUES THE OFFSPRING OF ABRAHAM
And then third, if you look at verse 16, it's almost like an aside. After the author has said this he says, “Ponder this friends.” Verse 16 — “Surely it is not angels that he helps but he helps the offspring of Abraham.” Do you see what the author of Hebrews is saying? “Think about this, friends. God rides to our rescue in redemption, not to the rescue of angels.” You know there were angels who, along with Lucifer, rebelled against God. God did not rescue them. And the author of Hebrews is saying this. “Do you understand that God came to your rescue, not to the rescue of angels? Friends, angels in heaven will say to you, ‘What's it like to be a child of Abraham? I'd really like to know. What's it like to be a being that God came to the rescue of in the life and death and resurrection of His Son because I don't know what that feels like?’” No wonder Peter says that angels look into what is happening in our redemption and they long to understand and they wonder at what is going on because God has done this for us and not for angels.
JESUS IS A MERCIFUL MEDIATOR AND PERFECT PROPITIATOR OF OUR SINS
And then he goes on. Here's the four thing. Look at verse 17. “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect 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.” In other words, the author of Hebrews is saying to us, “He became like us — why? That He might be a merciful mediator and the perfect propitiator of our sins.” The church fathers used to say, “The un-assumed is the unhealed.” In other words, if Jesus hadn't taken on our human nature He could not have dealt with the righteous wrath of God against our sin not aided us in the battle of godliness in these bodies of ours as we fight against temptation and we see to grow in the image of Christ. But He became like us so that He could deliver us, so that He could be our merciful, sympathetic, understanding mediator and so that He could offer a perfect propitiation for our sin, quitting the just wrath of God against our sin and covering our sin.
JESUS KNEW SUFFERING FROM THE INSIDE
AND THEREFORE IS ABLE TO HELP IN TEMPTATION
And then finally look at verse 18. The author of Hebrews says, “For because he himself has suffered when tempted he is able to help those who are being tempted.” And again it's one of those sentences that we could meditate on for the rest of our lives. The author of Hebrews is saying, “Because Jesus knows suffering and temptation from the inside, He knows how to help you in temptation.” It's a glorious thing, isn't it, that Jesus knows how to help you in temptation and suffering, not theoretically, not academically, but personally, because He's lived inside your skin. He knows what it is like to be fully human in a fallen world and He knows how to help you.
And have you ever thought about it? That's how much it took to deliver us from bondage to sin. To deliver us, Jesus had to share in our nature and to suffer temptation with us. That's how far He had to go to deliver us from temptation and sin. And you know what, part of us knows that. Part of us knows because there are especially those sins that we can't seem to be able to shake. We can't conquer them and they vex us and we know that it must have taken a mighty power to defeat sin because we feel so defeated sometimes. So part of us knows that Jesus had to go that far in order to give us victory over temptation and sin but part of us can't even conceive that. Honestly, we can't even conceive that. But every part of us ought to praise Him for it.
Some of you have read or followed the story of Professor Rosaria Champagne Butterfield. She wrote a book called, The Secret Thought of an Unlikely Convert, which a number of you have read and been helped by. This past week she wrote an article for Christianity Today; it is her testimony of conversion. She subtitles that testimony, “As A Leftist, Lesbian Professor, I Despised Christians — and Then Somehow I Became One.” I read this testimony to the ministers on Friday at our minister's meeting and we were left speechless for a few moments at the work of God's grace in this dear sister. And because it speaks very directly to the passage today I want to share with you Rosaria Champagne Butterfield's testimony in her own words:
“The word, Jesus, stuck in my throat like an elephant tusk. No matter how hard I choked, I couldn't hack it out. Those who professed that name commanded by pity and wrath. As a university professor I tired of students who seemed to believe that knowing Jesus meant knowing little else. Christian in particular were bad readers, always ceasing opportunities to insert a Bible verse into a conversation with the same point as a punctuation mark, to end it rather than to deepen it. Stupid. Pointless. Menacing. That's what I thought of Christian and their God, Jesus, who in paintings looked as powerful as a Breck Shampoo commercial model. As a professor of English and Women's Studies, on the track to becoming a tenured radical, I cared about morality, justice, and compassion. Fervent for the worldviews of Freud, Hegel, Marx, and Darwin, I strove to stand with the disempowered. I valued morality and I probably could have stomached Jesus and His band of warriors if it weren't for how other cultural forces buttressed the Christian right. Pat Robertson's quip from the 1992 Republican National Convention pushed me over the edge. ‘Feminism,’ he sneered, ‘encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.’
Indeed. The surround sound of Christian dogma comingling with Republican politics demanded my attention. So after my tenure book was published I used my post to advance the understandable allegiances of a leftist, lesbian professor. My life was happy, meaningful, and full. My partner and I shared many vital interests — AIDS activism, children's health and literacy, golden retriever rescue, and our Unitarian Universalist church — to name a few. Even if you believed the ghost stories promulgated by Robertson and his ilk it was hard to argue that my partner and I were anything but good citizens and caregivers. The GLBT community values hospitality and applies it with skill, sacrifice, and integrity.
I began researching the religious right and their politics of hatred against people like me. To do this, I would need to read the one book that had, in my estimation, gotten so many people off of the track — the Bible. While on the lookout for some Bible scholar to aid me in my research, I launched my first attack on the unholy Trinity of Jesus, Republican politics, and patriarchy in the form of an article in a local newspaper about Promise Keepers — it was 1997. The article generated many rejoinders so many that I kept a Xerox box on each side of my desk — one for hate mail, one for fan mail. But one letter I received defied my filing system. It was from the pastor of Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church. It was a kind and inquiring letter. Ken Smith encouraged me to explore the kinds of questions I admire: How did you arrive at your interpretations? How do you know that you’re right? Do you believe in God? Ken didn't argue with my article, rather he asked me to defend the presuppositions that undergirded it. I didn't know how to respond so I threw his letter away.
Later that night I fished it out of the recycling bin and put it back on my desk where it stared at me for a week, confronting me with a worldview divide that demanded a response. As a post-modern intellectual, I operated from a historical, materialist worldview. But Christianity is a supernatural worldview. Ken's letter punctured the integrity of my research project without him even knowing it. With the letter, Ken initiated two years of bringing the church to me, a heathen. Oh, I had seen my share of Bible verses on placards at gay pride marches. The Christians who mocked me on gay pride day were happy that I and everyone who I loved were going to hell. That's not what Ken did. He did not mock; he engaged. So when his letter invited me to get together for dinner I accepted. My motives at that time were straight forward — ‘Surely this will be good for my research.’ But something else happened. Ken and his wife, Floy, and I became friends. They entered my world. They met my friends. We did book exchanges. We talked openly about sexuality and politics and they did not act as if such conversations were polluting them. They did not treat me like a blank slate and when we ate together Ken prayed in a way that I had never heard before. His prayers were intimate, vulnerable. Ken repented of his sin in front of me! He thanked God for all things. Ken's God was holy and firm and yet full of mercy. And because Ken and Floy didn't at first invite me to church I knew it was safe to be their friend.
I started reading the Bible. I read in a way that a glutton devours. I read it many times that first year in multiple translations, and at a dinner gathering my partner and I were hosting, my transgendered friend Jay cornered me in the kitchen. She put her large hand over mine. ‘This Bible reading is changing you, Rosaria,’ she warned. With tremors I whispered, ‘Jay, what if it's true? What if Jesus is a real and risen Lord? What if we're all in trouble?’ Jay exhaled deeply, ‘Rosaria, I was a Presbyterian minister for fifteen years. I pray that God would heal me but He didn't. If you want, I’ll pray for you.’ But I continued reading the Bible, all the while fighting the idea that it was inspired. But the Bible got to be bigger inside of me than I. It overflowed into my world. I fought against it with all my might and then one Sunday morning I rose from the bed of my lover and an hour later sat in the pew at the Syracuse Presbyterian Church.
Conspicuous with my butch haircut, I reminded myself that I came to meet God, not to fit in. I fought with everything I had. I did not want this. I did not ask for this. I counted the cost and I did not like the math on the other side of the equals sign. And then one ordinary day I came to Jesus, orphaned, open-handed, and naked. In this war of worldviews Ken was there, Floy was there, the church that had been praying for me for years was there; Jesus triumphed and I was a broken mess. My conversion was a train wreck. I did not want to lose everything that I loved but the voice of God sang a sanguine love song in the rubble of my world. I weakly believed that if Jesus could conquer death He could make right my world. I drank tentatively at first, then passionately, of the solace of the Holy Spirit. I rested in private peace, then community, and today in the shelter of a covenant family where one calls me, ‘wife,’ and many call me, ‘mother.’”
And then I love this line. She says, “I have not forgotten the blood Jesus surrendered for this life.” You see what she's saying? It took the temptation and suffering and blood of Jesus to give her this life and she's not about to forget it. That's what the author of Hebrews is saying to you this morning. I don't know what temptation you brought here with you today, but there is no temptation that is more than a match for Him. He is more than a match for any and every temptation. Jesus is enough; He's more than enough. And He has gone all the way to His shed blood to deliver His people from bondage and slavery to sin. There's nothing He can't handle.
Heavenly Father, we need to believe that but it's hard to believe that, so this is our prayer — Lord, we believe. Help thou our unbelief, in Jesus' name, amen.
Now let's conclude our worship by singing of the sovereign Savior who can help us in any and every temptation using number 243, “Praise the Savior, Now and Ever.”
Receive God's blessing. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord, Jesus the Christ. Amen.