2:18 — For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.
Jesus knows what it feels like to be tempted. We can never say to Him, “You don’t know what it’s like,” because He does. In fact, we know less of the pain of temptation than He does, since He never gave in to it.
For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendant of Abraham. Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted. (2:16–18)
Christ did not come to redeem angels but men. So He took on Himself the form of Abraham’s descendants and became a Jew. “How odd of God to choose the Jews,” someone has quipped. We wonder why He chose them and not some other race or nation on whom to show His special favor. But if He had chosen some other group, we would ask the same question about them. He simply chose them in His sovereign will out of love. “The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the Lord loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers” (Deut. 7:7–8).
Again the writer answers the question, “If Jesus is God, why did He become a man?” He came to substitute for men, to reconcile men to God, to fit them for God’s presence and to destroy death. But beyond that He also came to help the reconciled when they are tempted. He wanted to feel everything we feel so that He could be a merciful and understanding, as well as a faithful, high priest. He came not only to save us but to sympathize with us.
In his letters to Timothy, Paul gave words of counsel and encouragement to his young friend about many things—his health, his critics, his moral and spiritual welfare. But all of his counsel could perhaps be summed up in these words in the second letter: “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descendant of David” (2 Tim. 2:8). Paul was saying, in effect, “Remember Jesus Christ in His humanity, Timothy. Remember that, wherever you may go, He has been there before you. You can get down on your knees when the going gets tough and you can pray, ‘Lord, You know what You went through when You were here. I’m going through it now.’ And He will say, ‘Yes, I know.’ ”
When you have a problem, it is wonderful to be able to talk with the divine One who has already experienced it and come through successfully. Other people may be understanding, but they cannot fully understand. Jesus came to identify with us, to experience what we experience. “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). He became our Sympathizer, a merciful and faithful high priest. He was hungry, He was thirsty, He was overcome with fatigue, He slept, He was taught, He grew, He loved, He was astonished, He was glad, He was angry, He was indignant, He was sarcastic, He was grieved, He was troubled, He was overcome by future events, He exercised faith, He read the Scriptures, He prayed, He sighed in His heart when He saw another man in illness, and He cried when His heart ached.
Jesus felt everything we will ever feel—and more. For example, He felt temptation to a degree that we could not possibly experience. Most of us never know the full degree of resistible temptation, simply because we usually succumb long before that degree is reached. But since Jesus never sinned, He took the full measure of every temptation that came to Him. And He was victorious in every trial.
Why did He go through that? He did it so that He could become a merciful and faithful high priest who could sympathize with our weaknesses and who could come to the aid of those who are tempted. Ours is not a cosmic God, powerful and holy, but indifferent. He knows where we hurt, where we are weak, and where we are tempted. He is the God we can go to not only for salvation but for sympathy.
This is our Savior. The perfect Savior. Our Substitute, our salvation Author, our Sanctifier, our Satan-Conqueror, and our Sympathizer. What a Savior He is. There is no other.
Able to Help
For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Heb. 2:18)
Most of the heresies of the early church had to do in one way or another with the person of Jesus Christ. On the one hand, there were those who denied the full divinity of Jesus, a view most closely identified with Arius, a preacher from Alexandria in Egypt. The Arians held that however great Jesus was, he was still less than the eternal and almighty God. On the other hand were the Docetists, so called for the Greek word dokeō, which means “to seem” or “to appear.” These held that while the divine Christ may have appeared as a man, he nonetheless was not. It would have been unworthy for the divine to take up flesh, they argued, much less to die in shame and weakness upon a cross.
The first church council at Nicaea, meeting in a.d. 325, dealt with such matters. It specifically condemned Arianism as a heresy, affirming Christ’s full divinity and his full humanity. The Nicene Creed described our Lord Jesus Christ as “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father … and [he] was made man.” More recently, the Westminster Shorter Catechism speaks of the eternal Son of God becoming man with these words: “Christ, the Son of God, became man, by taking to himself a true body and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and born of her yet without sin” (Q/A 22).
Both aspects of this ancient controversy have already been answered in the Letter to the Hebrews. Christ’s full divinity featured prominently in chapter 1, where verse 8 said of Jesus: “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever.” This is about as clear a statement of deity as you can find. Chapter 2 speaks very deliberately to the other side of the equation. Hebrews 2:10–13 showed how thoroughly Jesus identified himself with mankind, making himself of one family with those he saves and even equipping himself for office by means of suffering. Hebrews 2:14–18 goes on to give proof-texts that are and have been devastating to any who would deny the full humanity of Jesus Christ. Verse 14 tells us that he “partook of … flesh and blood,” while verse 17 says he was “made like his brothers in every respect.” The One who is fully God—the very Son of the very God of heaven—both suffered and was tempted as a man, as we see in verse 18.
This is the great theme of these verses before us: the full humanity of Jesus Christ in his work as divine Savior. Assuming this truth, the writer of Hebrews draws forth its implications, making clear the reasons why God’s Son became man and also detailing the final results of that work begun by his humble birth in the Bethlehem stable. The author highlights here three great aspects of Christ’s saving work: first, he broke the devil’s hold and liberated captive humanity; second, he made propitiation for God’s holy wrath against our sin; and third, he became a merciful and compassionate minister who is able to help us who now are suffering under the trial of temptation.
The passage begins by telling us: “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” (Heb. 2:14–16). This is the reason Christ came into the world as a man. His purpose is defined by two key verbs. The first is “to destroy.” Jesus came to destroy the power of a tyrant who held mankind in slavery, namely, the devil. The second verb is “to deliver.” Like Moses in the exodus, Jesus came to set his people free. This was the purpose of the incarnation. These verses also show the means by which he gained this victory: through his death.
Altogether this is a wonderfully succinct statement of Jesus’ mission in this world. If someone asks, “Why did Jesus come into the world?” here is the answer: he came to die, that he might overthrow Satan’s dominion, and set captive humanity free.
Several great statements are made here, beginning with a description of man’s condition under sin. The writer of Hebrews says that all men “through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (v. 15). He names our great oppressor, the devil, and says he “has the power of death.” When the devil seduced our first parents into sin, he brought them under the curse of death. God had made this the punishment for disobedience, as seen in Genesis 2:17: “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Ever since, the devil and his minions have tormented man by means of the fear of death. This now is the plight of our race, so that William Lane is surely right when he comments: “Hopeless subjection to death characterizes earthly existence apart from the intervention of God. Moreover, the presence of death makes itself felt in the experience of anxiety.”
The fear of death is something mankind still faces today. How much of our busyness, or our frenzy for entertainment, is mainly an attempt to divert our gaze from the shadow death casts across our lives? Death is not merely an event that awaits us, but a power that rules us now, the leaven of futility that permeates all our achievements and denies our souls peace and contentment.
This, then, is a clear statement of the problem our Lord Jesus came to solve. It is from this that he saves us—not merely from unhappiness or dysfunction or failure in life. What we need to be saved from is far greater, the comprehensive reign of death because of sin—a reign that now holds us in bondage through fear, that at the end of our lives afflicts us with the experience of death, and that beyond the grave sees us damned before the judgment throne of the holy God. Death is the problem from which we must be saved. Death is the rod of Satan’s rule and the source of his laughter at our expense.
Death is also what Christ overcomes by his saving work. He breaks the devil’s power and sets us free by means of his own death on the cross. Taking our sins upon himself, Jesus endured the wrath of God that we deserve. At the cross, Jesus “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light” (2 Tim. 1:10). Jesus is the champion from heaven who has defeated our hellish foe by his victory on the cross.
Are you held in bondage by the spectre of death’s reality? Though you must face death, are you free from the chains of its fear, knowing that for you death is the doorway to eternal life in glory? If you have relied on Jesus, you have been set free from death’s sting. This is what Jesus did on the cross—he gave you freedom from the fear of death. Now, through faith in Christ, you can exult in his victory with the words of the apostle Paul: “ ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:54–57). John Calvin therefore exhorts us: “It is from this fear that Christ has released us, by undergoing our curse, and thus taking away what was fearful in death. Although we must still meet death, let us nevertheless be calm and serene in living and dying, when we have Christ going before us.”
Whenever we talk about Christ’s death on the cross, we need to understand that there are two parties to whom his work was directed—both the sinner and God. This is why Paul writes, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5).
We have already seen one reason why Jesus became man, namely, to die and thus to free us from death. In that sense, we are the objects of his saving work. But there is also God the Father to be considered, who in his holiness cannot accept people who have stained themselves with sin, who are corrupted as an entire race and as individuals. Verse 17 deals with that aspect of Christ’s death of which God is the object: “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.”
I mentioned earlier that controversies over Christ’s divine and human natures have caused some of the key battles in church history. This verse gives a classic explanation as to why the Christ had to become fully man; namely, so that he might perform priestly service before God on man’s behalf and thus propitiate—that is, turn aside—God’s wrath against our sin.
The classic explanation of this doctrine was given by Anselm of Canterbury some nine hundred years ago in his towering work Cur Deus Homo, which means “Why God Became Man.” Speaking of the payment that must be made for our sins, Anselm wrote: “It could not have been done unless man paid what was owing to God for sin. But the debt was so great that, while man alone owed it, only God could pay it, so that the same person must be both man and God. Thus it was necessary for God to take manhood into the unity of his person, so that he who in his own nature ought to pay and could not should be in a person who could.”
This is what the writer of Hebrews gets at in verse 17: “He had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest.” The Old Testament priests represented God before man, which was why they were garbed with glory and honor (Ex. 28:2). Their priestly apparel gleamed, to portray the righteousness of God before the people. But just as importantly, the priest represented man before God. This is why the high priest wore an ephod of gold, upon which were fastened twelve stones, bearing the names of the twelve tribes of Israel (Ex. 28:9–12).
Christ became man so that he might bear our names upon his shoulders. The true high priest, he is garbed in his own perfect righteousness, which he presents on our behalf. He went forth as our minister and representative, offering his precious blood—his divine and infinitely valuable life, which alone could atone for the sins of the world—to pay the debt of our sin. His work was one of propitiation, turning aside God’s wrath from our sin.
This is why Jesus was born into this world, so that by his death as both God and man he might break the hold of death and set us free, while making propitiation to the holy wrath of God against our sins. As one of our great Christmas carols puts it: “Good Christian men, rejoice with heart and soul and voice; now ye need not fear the grave: Jesus Christ was born to save.”
Able to Help
I said there are three reasons why God the Son had to become a man. The first was to free us from slavery to death, while the second was to propitiate God’s just wrath. But there is a third reason given in this passage, set forth in verse 18: “Because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”
When I was on the faculty of the United States Military Academy, I spent one summer with the counseling center during the training of new cadets, affectionately known as Beast Barracks. It is a grueling time of physical and psychological challenges, under which not a few young men and women begin to crack, which is why the Academy provides counselors. I was one of several officers who oversaw the center, but the counseling was done mainly by older cadets who had been through the brutal weeks of that first summer at West Point. The cadets had recently been through it themselves, and therefore were best equipped to help new cadets who were tempted to quit, go home, or otherwise fall into despair.
In the same manner, Jesus is ideally suited to help us in our struggle with temptation to sin and despair, because he has been through it all himself. Here again is a great proof of Christ’s full humanity, that “he himself has suffered when tempted.” We naturally think of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness at the hands of the devil. There Jesus was afflicted with great hunger and the temptation to accept the crown without the cross. Surely those were great temptations, and Jesus overcame them. But we mustn’t overlook the whole range of temptations to which he was exposed during all his earthly existence, temptations that would have interacted with every aspect of his human nature. Because of them, Jesus knows exactly what we are going through. He knows what it is to be tempted because he experienced it himself. Our high priest has real sympathy and compassion for what we are going through.
Some people object that Jesus does not know the full human experience because he was not a sinner. Without the experience of sin’s corruption, they say, he cannot have full sympathy with us. The answer to this is that far from Jesus knowing less than we do about temptation because he never fell into sin, the opposite is the case. Jesus knows far more about temptation than we do because he endured far beyond the point where the strongest of us gives in to the trial. B. F. Westcott is surely right when he observes: “Sympathy with the sinner in his trial does not depend on the experience of sin but on the experience of the strength of the temptation to sin, which only the sinless can know in its full intensity. He who falls yields before the last strain.”
Jesus has real and knowledgeable sympathy with those who are tempted. Therefore, the Scripture says, he is able to help. What a wonderful combination we have before us. On the one hand we have One who is mighty to save. In this respect, Jesus is not “just like us.” He is the Redeemer and we are the sinners in so great a need for a champion. And yet his work is hardly impersonal or mechanical; it is heartfelt and sensitive. He was like us in his experience of pain and suffering and temptation. He felt nails as they were driven into his hands and his feet so that he might rescue us from the power of death. Thus there is a quality of mercy to Christ’s work that is intimate, personal, and knowing. It calls us to love him as an intimate Savior, the God who has gone to such lengths to know us in our trials, to have the fellowship of our suffering even as he calls us into the fellowship of his.
What all this means is that Jesus is able. He is able to understand what you are going through. He is able to hear you with a sympathetic and merciful heart when you cry out. What an encouragement that is for you in all sorts of trials and temptations to turn to the Lord in prayer.
Most importantly, Jesus is able to deliver you. You can trust him, therefore, knowing that death will not bring you harm but will bring you to Jesus. You can also trust him for today, for your present temptations and struggles. He is able to help us, by praying for us at the throne of his Father in heaven and by sending the Holy Spirit into our hearts, giving us strength that is of him. This is why Paul said, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Despite all of Paul’s many trials, it was with knowledge of Christ’s present power that he could declare: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).
Like You, for You, with You
Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, became like us to be a total Savior, sufficient for the whole range of our need. How hollow, then, ring the world’s complaints against our God. People are saying all the time today, lamenting in this world of woe, “Where is God? Why doesn’t he do something?” Meanwhile, he has done everything, indeed, more than ever we could ask or imagine. God has entered into our world. He has walked through the dust of this earth. He who is life has wept before the grave, and he who is the Bread of Life has felt the aching of hunger in his belly. Is there anything more lovely in all of Scripture than the scenes of Jesus supping with the weak and the weary, the sinners and the publicans? He has taken the thorns that afflict this sin-scarred world and woven them into a crown to be pressed upon his head. And he has stretched open his arms in love, that the hands that wove creation might be nailed to a wooden cross. Then he rose from the dead, conquering all that would conquer us, setting us free to live in peace and joy before the face of God.
All that God has done, in the redeeming work of Jesus Christ, was done not for angels but for you. It was like you that he became, and it was for you that he died. It is with you that he sympathizes now, knowing well your struggle. He is able—but are you willing? That is the only question that remains. The hymn “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” tells us the only answer that makes any sense, namely, that we should trust him to be this kind of Savior for us:
Come, thou long-expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us;
let us find our rest in thee.…
Come to earth to taste our sadness,
he whose glories knew no end;
by his life he brings us gladness,
our Redeemer, Shepherd, Friend.
For in that he himself hath suffered, &c. Having been tried by our evils, he is ready, he says, to bring us help. The word temptation here means no other thing than experience or probation; and to be able, is to be fit, or inclined, or suitable.
18 This verse underlines the assertion that Jesus can be a “merciful” high priest because he (unlike the angels) has shared and therefore understands our human weakness. In the NT it is always difficult to know whether peirazō (GK 4279) should be translated “tempt” or “test”; both senses are inherent in the verb, and both apply to the experience of Jesus, “tested” by his Father and “tempted” by Satan (Mt 4:1–11); his passion was the supreme “test” (12:2–3). In Hebrews the verb is used of the Israelites “testing” of God (3:9) and of God’s “testing” of Abraham (11:17); but in 4:15, where it is used again specifically of Jesus, the qualification, “yet without sin,” suggests temptation to do wrong. That Jesus shared our experience of temptation, though without succumbing to it, is one of the most profound indications of his real humanity—and our assurance of his understanding and effective help when we are tempted.
2:18 / Although it is not strictly pertinent to the argument at this point, the writer cannot resist a brief pastoral note about the practical benefit of having Jesus as our high priest. Jesus, because of his full humanity and because of his suffering, is in a special position to help those who are being tempted and who call upon him. This application is made more explicit in 4:15, and almost certainly is prompted by the actual difficulties faced by the readers.
Christ our liberator
The writer now develops his theme of Christ’s identification with our humanity by describing his liberating work for all mankind. During the past decade ‘liberation’ has become a highly fashionable theological idea. This passage expounds the theme of man’s greatest deliverance, but it does not figure prominently in the teaching of so-called ‘liberation theology’. It is important for us to discern what our author believes to be man’s most serious form of bondage and how Christ effected his release from such a grim prison. Christ’s liberating mission is here presented as an urgent necessity, an accomplished fact and a continuing process.
- Liberation as an urgent necessity
The liberation theologians of South America and elsewhere focus attention on man’s need for political and social deliverance. Genuine Christians are portrayed as those wiling to take up the cause of the powerless masses. Liberty and freedom are presented in terms of human salvation from inhuman regimes and oppressive structures. It is important here to emphasize again that Christians have cause to be deeply troubled about any form of human deprivation. It is certainly no part of the Christian gospel to ignore the crying needs of the oppressed. Jesus cared for people deeply, fed the hungry and helped the outcast members of his contemporary society. But this letter makes it abundantly clear that even if, rightly, all forms of oppression are removed from man’s experience, he will still be crushed and broken by a far greater power than that exercised by loveless megalomaniacs, selfish employers, or indifferent politicians. In other words, the worst tyranny is within. These verses vividly portray helpless man, the terrified victim of a triple enemy, sin, death and the devil. Our writer asserts that, as our perfect pioneer, Christ had to meet these sinister powers and malevolent influences. It was necessary for him to partake of the same nature as ourselves in order to deal effectively with them.
The first enemy is sin. We have already seen that it is starkly portrayed in the opening verses of this letter as an ugly stain which must be purged away if we are to be purified (1:3). It is a hostile, destructive, inward power which will always prevent us from being the people we might genuinely want to be. To meet our need of purification, Christ came as a priest to offer the sacrifice of himself. He makes expiation for the sins of the people (2:17).
The second enemy is death. Death is the direct result and inevitable fruit of sin and man is haunted by its constant threat. Throughout our lives we are through fear of death … subject to … bondage (2:15). Enslaved convicts, we are in powerless ‘servitude’ (neb) and need to be released. By taking our nature and experiencing death (2:14), Jesus deals effectively and eternally with this immense tyrant.
Perhaps even the early Christians who received this letter were a little fearful when they thought of death. Persecution was imminent and, understandably, one might have been a little afraid of the actual experience of dying, especially as it might well involve intense physical suffering. Such believers stood in need of a reminder that death has no fears for the Christian. But if Christians might occasionally be afraid when they contemplated death, unbelievers in the first century were terror-stricken when they considered its shattering prospect. The pagan had no hope for the future. He could only live for the present. Some lines from Euripides indicate something of the crippling despair in the mind of the ancient pagan when he considered the fact of death. The Greeks thought about it this way:
But if any far-off state there be,
Dearer than life to mortality;
The hand of the Dark hath hold thereof,
And mist is under and mist above.
And so we are sick for life, and cling
On earth to this nameless and shining thing.
For other life is a fountain sealed,
And the deeps below us are unrevealed
And we drift on legends for ever!
The most that the Romans could believe about the life to come is that a good man might hope to ‘live on’ in the minds of those who cherished his memory, but there was little thought of personal survival. With what excitement the early Christian preachers must have proclaimed the authoritative words of Jesus to men and women in despair about death: ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.’ The unbelieving world has no such assurance. It is absent, for example, from both Communism and humanism. During the second world war Sir John Lawrence attended what he describes as ‘a sort of Communist memorial service’ to Stanislavsky in the Moscow Arts Theatre. He says,
There was a closed coffin on the stage, draped in a red flag, and the dead man’s colleagues came and said goodbye to him in set speeches. One heard some of the world’s greatest actors and actresses speaking of their teacher and leader on what should have been a moving occasion, but the experience was empty. I was not at that time a Christian believers, but even so it struck me that Communism has nothing to say about death. There was no development of a theme such as one gets in the prayer book service for the Burial of the Dead. In the same way, to visit the Mausoleum where Lenin lies, and where Stalin lay for a few years beside him, is for me a disturbing experience precisely because it has no content.
Or take the humanist attitude to life with its sad stark pessimism and restricted horizons. Bertrand Russell says:
Brief and powerless is man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destructions omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gates of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow fall, the lofty thoughts that enoble his little day; … to worship at the shrine his own hands have built.
The third enemy is the devil. Jesus has robbed death of its anguish by defeating the one who constantly makes use of it. The devil is a reality to the biblical writers. Some modem scholars, embarrassed by the references to his work in Scripture, have endeavoured to dismiss the force of such sayings by suggesting that the idea of the devil is a Persian religious notion which came into Old Testament thought rather late in the day. The argument then proceeds that the New Testament writers inherited this conception and utilized it, but in our more enlightened times we can dispense with it. Those who are committed to the authority and reliability of Scripture believe that the entire book is given for our instruction and choose to be neither dismissive nor derisive concerning the biblical teaching about the devil. Jesus did not appear to minimize his power or rationalize his sinister influence,8 and in his teaching openly identified him for what he is, murderer, liar, thief.
- Liberation as an accomplished fact
The New Testament makes it clear that the coming of Jesus was the beginning of the end for the devil. Hebrews adds to this incontrovertible testimony that Christ has overcome the devil’s power, and our writer makes his point in three ways. He is convinced that his victory for us began with the incarnation, was revealed in his sinlessness, and achieved by the atonement.
It was necessary, first of all, for the liberator to partake of the same nature as ourselves. In this way he experienced the full force and relentless power of temptation but resolutely refused to be influenced by its onslaughts. He was tempted not less than we are, but more. All too often we succumb to temptation, we yield to its power when the pressure is on. We give in long before its full force has been really felt. As Hughes puts it, Christ ‘knows the full force of temptation in a manner that we who have not withstood it to the end cannot know it.’
But our victory over the triple-enemy of sin, death and the devil, needed something more than his incarnate life and his moral perfection. To become man’s perfect liberator, God’s Son had to experience the process common to all flesh and blood, the experience of death. It was also necessary for this spotless, pure, undefiled (7:26) conqueror to take upon himself in death the weight and burden of our sin, doing for us at the cross, as our substitute, that which we could not possibly do for ourselves. By that death he obtained for sinful mankind the pardon of our sin and the removal of our guilt. This is how the devil was ‘rendered impotent’, which is the true meaning of the word destroy here (2:14).
But, understandably, the question may be asked: If, at the cross of Christ, the devil was rendered impotent, why is he still so very much alive in the world, and in what sense are we free from his aggressive power? Surely he is still far from being ‘destroyed’ in any final sense? Does he not still, as in Peter’s day, stalk around the entire world like a roaring lion, constantly looking out for someone to terrorize, molest and destroy? Christ’s victorious death robbed the devil of his earlier power and stranglehold over men. Ultimately, the devil will be destroyed completely, but until then believers need to recognize that his power is a limited power.
In my early twenties I used to be a postman. One day I had to deliver a letter to a house I had never visited before. I opened the garden gate only to find myself confronted by the largest and most vicious dog I had ever seen! It barked furiously and then leapt towards me. I stood there helpless and terrified until, to my immense relief, I saw that this massive, angry dog was chained to a huge stake set in concrete. The chain was a long one and the dog had considerable freedom, but not enough to reach me. I saw I could easily deliver the letter and did so. The incident became like a parable to me. As a matter of fact, whenever I had to visit that house in the course of my work, I took little notice of the aggressive dog. I always kept my eye on the strong stake! At the cross the enemy of souls, the devil, was made impotent, limited and chained down. when he has ‘bitten’ us it is usually because we have been far too near.
- Liberation as a continuing process
The author of this epistle is deeply persuaded that this eternally significant, divinely planned, conquest of sin, death and the devil by Christ took place once for all in history. He knows, however, that this victory is likely to prove effective in the lives of individual believers only if they recognize that its achievements must be appropriated and its blessings applied in daily living. He is assured not only about what Jesus has done but about what he continues to do for his people. whatever the hazards of daily living, he is able to help those who are tempted (2:18). There are numerous ways in which this promised help comes to the children of God.
First, he helps us by removing our fears. There is little that paralyses us and inhibits us more than being afraid. Here the writer has asserted that, before Christ comes into our lives, our greatest fear is that of death. A truly committed Christian has no need to fear death. In his exposition of these verses, Martin Luther wrote: ‘He who fears death or is unwilling to die is not a Christian to a sufficient degree; for those who fear death still lack faith in the resurrection, since they love this life more than they love the life to come … He who does not die willingly should not be called a Christian.’
Secondly, he helps us by manifesting his mercy. He became like us in order that he might adequately minister to our needs as a merciful … high priest. Death is the fear of the future. Guilt is the fear of the past. Through his ‘great salvation’ he has made expiation or propitiation for the sins of the people. The word used here (hilaskesthai) is translated ‘to make expiation for’ (or ‘to expiate’, neb). It is grammatically permissible to translate this verse (2:17) as a reference to Christ’s work in making ‘expiation’, but as Bruce has made clear, ‘if sins require to be expiated, it is because they are sins committed against someone who ought to be propitiated.’ An Old Testament priest committed himself to ‘the service of God’ and part of his essential ministry on behalf of the congregation was to make propitiation for the sins of the people. As Leon Morris puts it: ‘The just wrath of God was exercised toward men account of their sin. But Christ dealt with that situation. He made the propitiation that was necessary, and so sin is no longer operative.’ Morris has shown that elsewhere in Scripture hilaskomai has to do with the averting of the divine wrath. This does not in any sense imply that a merciful Christ has to die in order to placate the anger of a God initially unwilling to do anything about man’s sin other than destroy the sinner. Far from it. Hughes reminds us that this is a perilous caricature of biblical truth in that it ‘introduces an intolerable dichotomy between the Father and the Son, as though the Son by acting independently could somehow induce a change in the Father’s attitude’. Such a view is certainly not supported by the teaching of this letter. We have already seen that God acted in this way for man’s redemption because it was fitting for him so to do (2:10). A later passage makes it even more clear that his incarnation and death were an expression of Christ’s obedience to and harmony with the saving purpose of God for mankind (10:7–10).
Nothing is quite so debilitating and demoralizing as an acute sense of failure. It severs the nerve of moral action, floods our disturbed minds with a sense of remorse, and cripples us at the very point where we need power not to fail again. Jesus is able to help us when we are tempted because he declares to us, clearly and unmistakably, by his word and his work, that our sin is forgiven, our guilt taken away, our pardon assured. We are thus given a clean start; the failures of the past need not in any sense keep us back from the potential victories of the future.
Thirdly, he helps us by proving his faithfulness. He is a faithful as well as merciful high priest in God’s service. It is possible, of course, to suggest here that in his high-priestly service Christ is merciful to man and faithful to God, the twin-title reflecting the manward and Godward aspects of his priestly ministry. But it is equally true that he is faithful to us. The trustworthy and reliable Christ is the one who comes to our help when we are temped, not a vascillating, capricious, occasionally unavailable helper, but one who has proved himself fully dependable and completely adequate in every experience of life.
Fourthly, he helps us by sharing our sufferings. Jesus did not live a detached life, free from adversity and trouble. He experienced first-hand its hazards and hardships, and went through anguish we shall never have to contemplate, and he did it all for us. The first readers of this letter were also up against persecution, rejection, physical assault and social deprivation. It is essential for them to know that the Christ their contemporaries reject is that Lord who understands their constantly changing needs. This means surely that whenever we are up against it, prayer is our immediate aid. We turn instinctively to the one who has suffered, knowing that he feels for us. The help is not simply emotional, however, though in any kind of trouble we know the immense value of sympathetic understanding from someone who has been through the same grim experiences. He not only feels; he instructs. Having been through all the testings of life, he can reveal to us, especially by his radiant example and his matchless words, how we should react to sufferings or temptations. Moreover, he does not simply teach, he supports.
Finally then, he helps us by supplying our strength. Jesus pledges his strong and sure support, his own invincible and available power. He serves effectively as our priest ‘by the power of an indestructible life’ (7:16). All the forces of evil were hurled against him as he hung upon the cross, but he was ‘brought again from the dead’ (13:20) by the eternal, almighty God. When we are humanly at the end of our tether, with seemingly no resources left, moral or physical, Christ comes to his ‘sons’ with the promise that he is fully qualified to bring them to his ultimate glory. For that journey they will need all the power they can get. Many Christians today work, study, live and serve in surroundings far from congenial for a believer. Christ’s name is used only blasphemously, moral standards are a thing of the past, materialistic concerns are dominant, secular interests and preoccupations form the very air we breathe. Many of our contemporaries cannot cope with the pressures. Disillusionment, loneliness, moral frustration and emotional despair lead some seriously to contemplate the possibility of putting an end to it all. But the one who endured the world’s greatest suffering, the bearing of human sin and separation from God, and yet triumphed, is certainly able to help anyone who turns to him. He is able to help us in our moment of fierce temptation. He is able for all time to save those who seek (7:25). He is able to do far more for us than we would ever dare to pray about or even think about. He is able to keep us from spiritual collapse and present us to the eternal God as his redeemed children. However great the pressures, the New Testament assurance that he is ‘able’ should encourage us to deeper trust and renewed confidence in his unfailing ability not only to see us through the troubles, but make us conquerors over them.
2:18. This verse insists on the real humanity of Jesus. It also contains an important application of that real humanity. Because Jesus was a true human being and because he suffered, he can help us in our temptation.
This verse introduces several important questions. How could the sinless Jesus receive temptation? Was he tempted in the same way as human beings? These questions will be discussed further in 4:15.
Three important thoughts confront us here. First, Jesus suffered. He suffered as our Savior physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Second, this suffering became a source of temptation. The sufferings were so intense that Jesus could have decided that enduring them was not worth the pain which they inflicted. He never considered that, for he said, “Not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). Third, enduring suffering allowed him to help us. His victory over temptation and sin allowed him to guide us through the dangerous rocks of temptation.
Jesus has great ability to help us. His ability is not based on his experience with sin. His ability is based on his experience of the temptation to sin. Only someone who is sinless can know this experience fully.
When my son was a child, I often took him swimming. He delighted in playing the game of holding his breath under water. We competed with one another to see who could outlast the other. His youth led to his defeat. At the first sign of pain and discomfort under water, he would surface for air. I stayed under until my lungs were heaving with pain. When I surfaced for air, I truly needed it. Jesus remained in the pool of temptation longer than any of us. He knew the pain more fully. He resisted to the end. He never sinned. His experience allows him to encourage us and lead us to victory as we face temptation.
18. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
That Jesus’ humanity is genuine can be demonstrated, says the author of Hebrews, by the fact that Christ was tempted. He personally experienced the power of sin when Satan confronted him and when the weaknesses of our human nature became evident. Jesus experienced hunger when he was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, thirst when he asked the woman at Jacob’s well for water, weariness when he slept while the storm raged on the Sea of Galilee, and sorrow when he wept at the grave of Lazarus.
As high priest, through his sacrificial work, Jesus removed the curse of God that rested on man. Because of the forgiveness of sin, God’s love flows freely to the redeemed, and Jesus stands ready to help. Those who are being tempted may experience the active support of Jesus. They can expect nothing short of perfect understanding from Jesus, because he himself suffered when he was tempted.
Of course, Jesus did not share with us the experience of sin; instead, because of his sinlessness, Jesus fully experienced the intensity of temptation. He is able and willing to help us oppose the power of sin and temptation. As he said to the sinful woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee, “Your sins are forgiven.… Go in peace” (Luke 7:48, 50), so also Jesus shows his mercy, peace, and love to us. He is our sympathetic High Priest.
 Stanley, C. F. (2005). The Charles F. Stanley life principles Bible: New King James Version (Heb 2:18). Nashville, TN: Nelson Bibles.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1983). Hebrews (pp. 70–72). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Phillips, R. D. (2006). Hebrews. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (pp. 75–82). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
 Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews (p. 76). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 France, R. T. (2006). Hebrews. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, p. 57). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
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 Lea, T. D. (1999). Hebrews, James (Vol. 10, pp. 30–31). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of Hebrews (Vol. 15, p. 78). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.