Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 7

The Sympathy of Christ

Preached November 4, 1849

  Frederick W. Robertson

“For we have not a high-priest which can not be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.” – Hebrews 4:15,16.

According to these verses, the priesthood of Jesus Christ is based upon the perfection of His humanity. Because tempted in all points like as we are, therefore lie can show mercy, and grant help. Whatever destroys the conception of His humanity does in that same degree overthrow the notion of His priesthood.

Our subject is the Priestly Sympathies of Christ. But we make three preliminary observations.

The perfection of Christ’s humanity implies that He was possessed of a human soul as well as a human body. There was a view held in early times, and condemned by the Church as a heresy, according to which the body of Christ was an external framework animated by Deity, as our bodies are animated by our souls. What the soul is to us, Deity was to Christ. His body was flesh, blood, bones - moved, guided, ruled by indwelling Divinity.

But you perceive at once that this destroys the notion of complete humanity. It is not this tabernacle of material elements. which constitutes our humanity: you can not take that pale corpse from which life has fled, and call that man. And if Deity were to take up that form and make it its abode, that would not be a union of the Divine and Human. It would only be the union of Deity with certain materials that might have passed into man, or into an animal or an herb. Humanity implies a body and a soul.

Accordingly, in the life of Christ we find two distinct classes of feeling. When He hungered in the wilderness when He thirsted on the cross - when He was weary by the well at Sychar - He experienced sensations which belong to the bodily department of human nature. But when out of twelve He selected one to be His bosom friend - when He looked round upon the crowd in anger - when the tears streamed down His cheeks at Bethany - and when He recoiled from the thought of approaching dissolution: - these - grief, friendship, fear - were not the sensations of the body, much less were they the attributes of Godhead. They were the affections of an acutely sensitive human soul, alive to all the tenderness, and hopes, and anguish with which human life is filled, qualifying Him to be tempted in all points like as we are.

The second thought which presents itself is, that the Redeemer not only was, but is man. He was tempted in all points like us. He is a high-priest which can be touched. Our conceptions on this subject, from being vague, are often very erroneous. It is fancied that in the history of Jesus’s existence, once, for a limited period and for definite purposes, He took part in frail humanity; but that when that purpose was accomplished, the Man forever perished, and the Spirit reascended, to unite again with pure unmixed Deity. But Scripture has taken peculiar pains to give assurance of the continuance of His humanity. It has carefully recorded His resurrection. After that He passed through space from spot to spot: when He was in one place He was not in another. His body was sustained by the ordinary ailments - broiled fish and honeycomb. The prints of suffering were on Him. His recognitions were human still. Thomas and Peter were especially reminded of incidents before His death, and connected with His living interests. To Thomas He says - “Reach hither your hand.” To Peter - “Lovest thou me?”

And this typifies to us a very grand and important truth. It is this, if I may venture so to express myself - the truth of the human heart of God. We think of God as a Spirit, infinitely removed from and unlike the creatures He has made. But the truth is, man resembles God: all spirits, all minds, are of the same family. The Father bears a likeness to the Son whom He has created. The mind of God is similar to the mind of man. Love does not mean one thing in man, and another thing in God. Holiness, justice, pity, tenderness - these are in the Eternal the same in kind which they are in the finite being. The present manhood of Christ conveys this deeply important truth, that the Divine heart is human in its sympathies.

The third observation upon these verses is, that there is a connection between what Jesus was and what Jesus is. He can be touched now, because He was tempted then. The incidents and the feelings of that part of the existence which is gone have not passed away without results which are deeply entwined with His present being. His past experience has left certain effects durable in His nature as it is now. It has endued Him with certain qualifications and certain susceptibilities, which He would not have had but for that experience. Just as the results remained upon His body, the prints of the nails in His palms, and the spear-gash in his side, so do the results remain upon His soul, enduing Him with a certain susceptibility, for “He can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities;” with certain qualifications, for “He is able to show mercy, and to impart grace to help in time of need.”

To turn now to the subject itself It has two branches.


I. The Redeemer’s preparation for His priesthood.

II. The Redeemer’s priestly qualifications.


I. His preparation. The preparation consisted in being tempted. But here a difficulty arises. Temptation, as applied to a Being perfectly free from tendencies to evil, is not easy to understand. See what the difficulty is. Temptation has two senses: It means test or probation; it means also trial, involving the idea of pain or danger. A common acid applied to gold tests it, but there is no risk or danger to the most delicate golden ornament. There is one acid, and only one, which tries it, as well as tests it. The same acid applied to a shell endangers the delicacy of its surface. A weight hung from a bar of iron only tests its strength; the same, depending from a human arm, is a trial, involving, it may be, the risk of pain or fracture. Now trial placed before a sinless being is intelligible enough in the sense of probation - it is a test of excellence: but it is not easy to see how it can be temptation in the sense of pain, if there be no inclination to do wrong.

However, Scripture plainly asserts this as the character of Christ’s temptation. Not merely test, but trial.

First, you have passages declaring the immaculate nature Of His mind - as here, “without sin,” Again, He was “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners.” And again, “The prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in Me.” The spirit of evil found nothing which it could claim as its own in Christ. It was the meeting of two elements which will not amalgamate. Oil and water could as easily blend, as the mind of Christ with evil. Temptation glanced from His heart as the steel point does from the surface of the diamond. It was not that evil propensities were kept under by the power of the Spirit in Him: - He had no evil propensities at all. Obedience was natural to Him.

But then we find another class of passages such as this: “He suffered, being tempted.” There was not merely test in the temptation, but there was also painfulness in the victory now could this be without any tendency to evil?

To answer this, let us analyze sin. In every act of sin there are two distinct steps: There is the rising of a desire which is natural, and, being natural, is not wrong: there is the indulgence of that desire in forbidden circumstances; and that is sin. Let injury, for example, be inflicted, and resentment will arise. It must arise spontaneously. It is as impossible for injustice to be done, and resentment not to follow, as it is for the flesh not to quiver on the application of intense torture. Resentment is but the sense of injustice, made more vivid by its being brought home to ourselves; resentment is beyond our control, so far. There is no sin in this: but let resentment rest there; let it pass into, not justice, but revenge; let it smoulder in vindictive feeling till it becomes retaliation, and then a natural feeling has grown into a transgression. You have the distinction between these two things clearly marked in Scripture. “Be ye angry” - here is the allowance for the human, “and sin not” - here is the point where resentment passes into retaliation.

Again, take the natural sensation of hunger. Let a man have been without food: let the gratification present itself, and the natural desire will arise involuntarily. It will arise just as certainly in a forbidden as in a permitted circumstance. It will arise whether what be looks on be the bread of another or his own. And it is not here, in the sensation of hunger, that the guilt lies. But it lies in the willful gratification of it after it is known to be forbidden.

This was literally one of the cases in which Christ was tried. The wish for food was in His nature in the wilderness. The very mode of gratifying it was presented to His imagination, by using Divine power in an unlawful way. And had He so been constituted that the lower wish was superior to the higher will, there would have been an act of sin; had the two been nearly balanced, so that the conflict hung in doubt, there would have been a tendency to sin: what we call a sinful nature. But it was in the entire and perfect subjugation of desire to the will of right that a sinless nature was exhibited.

Here then is the nature of sin. Sin is not the possession of desires, but the having them in uncontrolled ascendancy over the higher nature. Sinfulness does not consist in having strong desires or passions: in the strongest and highest nature, all, including the desires, is strong. Sin is not a real thing. It is rather the absence of a something, the will to do right. It is not a disease or taint, an actual substance projected into the constitution. It is the absence of the spirit which orders and harmonizes the whole; so that what we mean when we say the natural man must sin inevitably, to this, that be has stronger natural appetites, and that he has no bias from above to counteract those appetites: exactly as if a ship were deserted by the crew, and left on the bosom of the Atlantic with every sail set and the wind blowing. No one forces her to destruction, yet on the rocks she will surely go, just because there is no pilot at the helm. Such is the state of ordinary men. Temptation leads to fall. The gusts of instincts, which rightly guided would have carried safely into port, dash them on the rocks. No one forces them to sin; but the spirit-pilot has left the helm. - [Fallen Nature.]

Sin, therefore, is not in the appetites, but in the absence of a controlling will.

Now contrast this state with the state of Christ. There were in Him all the natural appetites of mind and body. Relaxation and friendship were dear to Him - so were sunlight and life. Hunger, pain, death - He could feel all, and shrunk from them. Conceive, then, a case in which the gratification of any one of these inclinations was inconsistent with His Father’s will. At one moment it was unlawful to eat, though hungry: and without one tendency to disobey, did fasting cease to be severe? It was demanded that he should endure anguish; and willingly as He subdued Himself, did pain cease to be pain? Could the spirit of obedience reverse every feeling in human nature? When the brave man gives his shattered arm to the surgeon’s knife, will may prevent even the quiver of an eyelid, but no will and no courage can reverse his sensations, or prevent the operation from inflicting pain. When the heart is raw, and smarting from recent bereavement, let there be the deepest and most reverential submission to the highest Will, is it possible not to wince? Can any cant demand for submission extort the profession that pain is pleasure?

It seems to have been in this way that the temptation of Christ caused suffering. He suffered from the force of desire. Though there was no hesitation whether to obey or not, no strife in the will, in the act of mastery there, was pain. There was self-denial - there was obedience at the expense of tortured natural feeling. He shrunk from St. Peter’s suggestion of escape from ignominy as from a thing which did not shake His determination, but made Him feel, in the idea of bright life, vividly the cost of His resolve. “Get thee behind me, tempter, for thou art an offense.” In the garden, unswervingly, “Not as I will, but as Thou wilt.” There was no reluctance in the will. But was there no struggling - no shudder in the inward sensations - no remembrance that the Cross was sharp - no recollection of the family at Bethany, and the pleasant walk, and the dear companionship which He was about to leave? “My soul is exceeding sorrowful to die.” ...

So that in every one of these cases - not by the reluctancy of a sinful sensation, but by the quivering and the anguish of natural feeling when it is trampled upon by lofty will Jesus suffered, being tempted. He was “tempted like as we are.” Remember this. For the way in which some speak of the sinlessness of Jesus reduces all His suffering to physical pain, destroys the reality of temptation, reduces that glorious heart to a pretense, and converts the whole of His history into a mere fictitious drama, in which scenes of trial were only represented, not really felt. Remember that, “in all points,” the Redeemer’s soul was tempted.


II. The second point we take is the Redeemer’s priesthood.

Priesthood is that office by which He is the medium of union between man and God. The capacity for this has been indelibly engraven on His nature by His experience here. All this capacity is based on His sympathy: He can be “touched with the feeling of our infirmities.”

Till we have reflected on it, we are scarcely aware how much the sum of human happiness in the world is indebted to this one feeling - sympathy. We get cheerfulness and vigor, we scarcely know bow or when, from mere association with our fellow-men; and from the looks reflected on us of gladness and employment, we catch inspiration and power to go on, from human presence and from cheerful looks. The workman works with added energy from having others by. The full family circle has a strength and a life peculiarly its own. The substantial good and the effectual relief which men extend to one another is trifling. It is not by these, but by something far less costly, that the work is done. God has insured it by a much more simple machinery. He has given to the weakest and the poorest, power to contribute largely to the common stock of gladness. The child’s smile and laugh are mighty powers in this world. When bereavement has left you desolate, what substantial benefit is there which makes condolence acceptable? It can not replace the loved ones you have lost. It can bestow upon you nothing permanent. But a warm band has touched yours, and its thrill told you that there was a living response there to your emotion. One look, one human sigh has done more for you than the costliest present could convey.

And it is for want of remarking this that the effect of public charity falls often so far short of the expectations of those who give. The springs of men’s generosity are dried up by hearing of the repining, and the envy, and the discontent which have been sown by the general collection and the provision establishment, among, cottages where all was harmony before. The famine and the pestilence are met by abundant liberality; and the apparent return for this is riot and sedition. But the secret lies all in this. It is not in channels such as these that the heart’s gratitude can flow. Love is not bought by money, but by love. There has been all the machinery of a public distribution: but there has been no exhibition of individual, personal interest. The rich man who goes to his poor brother’s cottage, and without affectation of humility, naturally, and with the respect which man owes to man, enters into his circumstances, inquiring about his distresses, and hears his homely tale, has done more to establish an interchange of kindly feeling, than he could have secured by the costliest present by itself. Public donations have their value and their uses. Poor-laws keep human beings from starvation: but in the point of eliciting gratitude, all these fail. Man has not been brought into contact close enough with man for this. They do not work by sympathy.

Again, when the electric touch of sympathetic feeling has gone among a mass of men, it communicates itself, and is reflected back from every individual in the crowd, with a force exactly proportioned to their numbers. The speech or sermon read before the limited circle of a family, and the same discourse uttered before closely crowded hundreds, are two different things. There is strange power even in the mere presence of a common crowd, exciting almost uncontrollable emotion.

It is on record that the hard heart of an Oriental conqueror was unmanned by the sight of a dense mass of living millions engaged in one enterprise. He accounted for it by saying that it suggested to him that within a single century not one of those millions would be alive. But the hardhearted bosom of the tyrant mistook its own emotions; his tears came from no such far-fetched inference of reflection: they rose spontaneously, as they will rise in a dense crowd, you can not tell why. It is the thrilling thought of numbers engaged in the same object. It is the idea of our own feelings reciprocated back to us, and reflected from many hearts. It is the mighty presence of life.

And again, it seems partly to avail itself of this tendency within us that such stress is laid on the injunction of united prayer. Private devotion is essential to the spiritual life without it there is no life. But it can not replace united prayer, for the two things have different aims. Solitary prayer is feeble in comparison with that which rises before the throne echoed by the hearts of hundreds, and strengthened by the feeling that other aspirations are mingling with our own. And whether it be the chanted litany, or the more simply read service, or the anthem producing one emotion at the same moment in many bosoms, the value and the power of public prayer seem chiefly to depend on this mysterious affection of our nature-sympathy.

And now, having endeavored to illustrate this power of sympathy, it is for us to remember that of this in its fullness He is susceptible. There is a vague way of speaking of the Atonement which does not realize the tender, affectionate, personal love by which that daily, hourly reconciliation is effected. The sympathy of Christ was not merely love of men in masses: He loved the masses, but he loved them because made up of individuals. He “had compassion on the multitude;” but He had also discriminating, special tenderness for erring Peter and erring Thomas. He felt for the despised lonely Zaccheus in his sycamore-tree. He compassionated the discomfort of His disciples. He mixed His tears with the stifled sobs by the grave of Lazarus. He called the abashed children to His side. Amongst the numbers, as He walked, He detected the individual touch of faith. “Master, the multitude throng thee, and sayest thou, Who touched me?” - “Somebody hath touched me.”

Observe how he is touched by our infirmities - with a separate, special, discriminating love. There is not a single throb, in a single human bosom, that does not thrill at once with more than electric speed up to the mighty heart of God. You have not shed a tear or sighed, a sigh that did not come back to you exalted and purified by having passed through the Eternal bosom.

The priestly powers conveyed by this faculty of sympathizing, according to the text are two: the power of mercy, and the power of having grace to help. “Therefore” - because He can be touched - “let us come boldly,” expecting mercy - and grace.

1. We may boldly expect mercy from Him who has learned to sympathize. He learned sympathy by being tempted: but it is by being tempted, yet without sin, that He is specially able to show mercy.

There are two who are unfit for showing mercy: He who has never been tried; and he who, having been tempted, hat fallen under temptation. The young, untempted, and upright, are often severe judges. They are for sanguinary punishment: they are for expelling offenders from the bosom of society. The old, on the contrary, who have fallen much, are lenient; but it is a leniency which often talks thus: Men must be men - a young man must sow his wild oats and reform.

So young ardent Saul, untried by doubt, persecuted the Christians with severity; and Saul the king, on the contrary, having fallen himself, weakly permitted Agag to escape punishment. David, again, when his own sin was narrated to him under another name, was unrelenting in his indignation: “The man that hath done this thing shall surely die.”

None of these were qualified for showing mercy aright. Now this qualification “without sin” is very remarkable: for it is the one we often least should think of. Unthinkingly we should say that to have erred would make a man lenient: it is not so.

That truth is taught with deep significance in one of the incidents of the Redeemer’s life. There stood in His presence a tempted woman, covered with the confusion of recent conviction. And there stood beside her the sanctimonious religionists of that day, waiting like hell-hounds to be let loose upon their prey. Calm words came from the lips of Him “who spake as man never spake,” and whose heart felt as man never felt. “He that is without sin among you let him first cast a stone.” A memorable lesson of eternal truth. Sinners are not fit to judge of sin: their justice is revenge their mercy is feebleness. He alone can judge of sin - he alone can attemper the sense of what is due to the offended law with the remembrance of that which is due to human frailty - be alone is fit for showing manly mercy, who has, like his Master, felt the power of temptation in its might, and come scathless through the trial. “In all points tempted - yet without sin;” therefore, to Him you may “boldly go to find mercy.”

2. The other priestly power is the grace of showing “help in time of need.”

We must not make too much of sympathy, as mere feeling, We do in things spiritual as we do with hot-house plants; The feeble exotic, beautiful to look at, but useless, has costly sums spent on it. The hardy oak, a nation’s strength, is permitted to grow, scarcely observed, in the fence and copses. We prize feeling and praise its possessor. But feeling is only a sickly exotic in itself - a passive quality, having in it nothing moral, no temptation and no victory. A man if, no more a good man for having feeling, than be is for having a delicate ear for music, or a far-seeing optic nerve. The Son of man had feeling - He could be “touched.” The tear would start from His eyes at the sight of human sorrow. But that sympathy was no exotic in His soul, beautiful to look at, too delicate for use. Feeling with Him led to this, “He went about doing good.” Sympathy with Him was this, “Grace to help in time of need.”

And this is the blessing of the thought of Divine sympathy. By the sympathy of man, after all, the wound is not healed; it is only stanched for a time. It can make the tear flow less bitterly: it can not dry it up. So far as permanent good goes, who has not felt the deep truth which Job taught his friends - “Miserable comforters are ye all?”

The sympathy of the Divine Human! He knows what strength is needed. He gives grace to help; and when the world, with its thousand forms of temptation, seems to whisper to us as to Esau, Sell me thy birthright, the other voice speaks, Shall I barter blessedness for happiness - the inward peace for the outward thrill - the benediction of my Father for a mess of pottage? There are moments when we seem to tread above this earth, superior to its allurements, able to do without its kindness, firmly bracing ourselves to do our work as He did His. Those moments are not the sunshine of life. They did not come when the world would have said that all round you was glad: but it was when outward trials had shaken the soul to its very centre, then there came from Him “grace to help in time of need.”

1. He who would sympathize must be content to be tried and tempted. There is a hard and boisterous rudeness in our hearts by nature which requires to be softened down. We pass by suffering gayly, carelessly, not in cruelty, but unfeelingly, just because we do not know what suffering is. We wound men by our looks and our abrupt expressions without intending it, because we have not been taught the delicacy, and the tact, and the gentleness which can only be learnt by the wounding of our own sensibilities. There is a haughty feeling in uprightness which has never been on the verge of fall that requires humbling. There is an inability to enter into difficulties of thought which marks the mind to which all things have been presented superficially, and which has never experienced the horror of feeling the ice of doubt crashing beneath the feet.

Therefore, if you aspire to be a son of consolation - if you would partake of the priestly gift of sympathy - if you would pour something beyond commonplace consolation into a tempted heart - if you would pass through the intercourse of daily life with the delicate tact which never inflicts pain - if to that most acute of human ailments, mental doubt, you are ever to give effectual succor, you must be content to pay the price of the costly education. Like Him, you must suffer - being tempted.

But remember, it is being tempted in all points, yet without sin, that makes sympathy real, manly, perfect, instead of a mere sentimental tenderness. Sin will teach you to feel for trials. It will not enable you to judge them, to be merciful to them, nor to help them in time of need with any certainty.

Lastly, it is this same human sympathy which qualifies Christ for judgment. It is written that the Father hath committed all judgment to Him, because He is the Son of Man. The sympathy of Christ extends to the frailties of human nature, not to its hardened guilt: He is “touched with the feeling of our infirmities.” There is nothing in His bosom which can harmonize with malice; He can not feel for envy; He has no fellow-feeling for cruelty - oppression - hypocrisy; bitter censorious judgments. Remember, He could look round about Him with anger. The sympathy of Christ is a comforting subject. It is, besides, a tremendous subject; for on sympathy the awards of heaven and hell are built. “Except a man be born again” - not he shall not, but - “he can not enter into heaven.” There is nothing in him which has affinity to any thing in the Judge’s bosom. A sympathy for that which is pure implies a repulsion of that which is impure. Hatred of evil in proportion to the strength of love for good. To love good intensely is to hate evil intensely. It was in strict accordance the laws of sympathy that He blighted Pharisaism in such ungentle words as these: “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers! how can ye escape the damnation of hell?” Win the mind of Christ now - or else His sympathy for human nature will not save you from, but only insure, the recoil of abhorrence at the last - “Depart from me! I never knew you.”