Friday, August 13, 2010

those who are tempted

"Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so 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." (Hebrews 2:17-18)

In these final verses of the second chapter of the epistle to the Hebrews, the author recalls the theme that resonates throughout chapter 2, that of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. As the writer is in various parts of the epistle deeply concerned with supporting the supremacy of Christ, we find that just as Jesus is "better than the angels" as the Son of God, so He remains supreme as the Son of Man; His incarnation in no way depreciates His nature (Hebrews 1:4). In verse 18 we find an additional argument to buttress the previous assertion of the absolute necessity of the incarnation, that is, we read that Jesus "had to be made like His brethren in all things" (2:17, emphasis added). In addition to the goal of "becom[ing] a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people," we now encounter the notion that Jesus' authentic temptation and suffering enables Him in a unique way to "come to the aid" of humanity, who is beset by constant temptations and, because of our fallen nature, without intrinsic capability to overcome such temptation(s) (2:18). Thus, these verses not only continue the major theme of chapter 2, they also recall the notion of Christ's suffering mentioned in verse 10, wherein the author states that God "perfect[ed] the author of [our] salvation through sufferings" while "bringing many sons [and daughters] to glory" (2:10). In the immediate (textual) context of these present verses, then, Hebrews highlights the incarnational reality of Jesus' being "made like His brethren in all things" and His ability to offer humanity enduring relief as a result of His demonstrating (and not mere willingness to demonstrate) His love toward us.
In order to establish the effectiveness of Christ's help for humanity and our temptations, what follows here will perhaps appear to be in reverse order. That is, instead of beginning with Christ's perfection, I will instead begin with humanity's dilemma, and this is done so as to avoid a basic error with regard to the nature and purpose of the temptations and sufferings of Christ. The error (that Jesus was Himself in need of perfection) as well as the essential truth (that Jesus is innately perfect and lived a perfect sinless life as a human) both stem from attempts at answering the same questions, namely a) How is it (i.e., in what manner was it) that Jesus was "made perfect" through sufferings?, and b) Did Jesus (need to) suffer for His own sake, or just for ours? Other passages in Hebrews seem to exacerbate our predicament, for although in chapter 1 the author lucidly and definitively argues for the deity of Christ, elsewhere the reader encounters statements such as "[Jesus] learned obedience from the things which He suffered," or "having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation" (5:8, 9). Are these real or apparent contradictions? And, if they are only apparent ones, how can we reconcile these truths in light of the eternality and immutability of Jesus that is evidenced in chapter 1?
So, as mentioned above, I will begin with humanity, with "those who are tempted." But what does it mean to be tempted? What type of temptations do we face, and how serious are they? And why are we in need of "aid" for temptation? (brief note/disclaimer: In this post, keep in mind that I will not be able to address sufficiently the semantic and theological issues regarding the differences and subtle nuances between 'tempt/temptation' and 'test/trial,' etc.) Consider the following excerpt from a recent book by Shirley Rose, who exhorts us to guard against a conceptualization of temptation that is too narrowly constrained on only one type of temptation[1]:

[W]hen most of us think about temptation, we immediately think about sexual temptation. And for good reason. Sexual immorality is rampant in our postmodern society, and it affects women as well as men. The allure of sexual sin must be taken seriously. However, it's not always about sex. Most women [and I'll add, many to most men] struggle with other temptations on a more regular basis. Left unchecked, these areas of temptation can lead to serious sins of the spirit. I propose there are other temptations women [and men] face in the day-to-day business of living that are just as lethal to a close, fulfilling relationship with God and a fruitful ministry. (Rose 2006:11, emphasis original)

Crucially, we must note three elements from this passage in regards to temptation. First, temptation by itself does not equal sin, though succumbing to temptation does lead to sin as we are "carried away and enticed by [our] own lusts" that "when [...] conceived, it gives birth to sin" and eventually "brings forth death" (James 1:14-15). As we read in Scriptures, Jesus Himself was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, and as Hebrews 2:17 states, "tempted in that which He suffered," but He completely overcame these temptations and lived a sinless life (therefore, temptation does not necessarily equal sin). Second, temptation that gives way to sin, because it is/becomes sin, ruptures the relational intimacy that God has granted between Himself and His children. Indeed, it stands as a barrier between God and humankind that only God Himself could destroy, and verily did so in the Person and work of Jesus. Still, if the purpose of God's creating humanity is to have fellowship/communion with Him, and sin consequently breaks that fellowship, then through Christ we have need to participate in His sinless life; thus He enables us to be in a relationship with God. Third, temptations are manifest in many aspects of our lives, including regular "day-to-day" experiences. Thus, these temptations can take many forms, in line with what Paul terms "the deeds of the flesh":

Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)

In light of these manifold actions and thoughts (along with how tragically commonplace they are in our lives), we recognize the desperate need we have for "aid" since, in and of ourselves, we lack the ability to propitiate for the sins that separate us from the living God, who Himself is our greatest joy. Moreover, we must take care that we guard ourselves from a wide array of temptations that are not exclusively tangible and material.
Apart from what we have just discussed, there are also "temptations" that are, to some degree or other, divinely ordained (though bear in mind James 1:13) with the ultimate goal of our good and God's glory (and, perhaps we might even say that all temptations may serve the ultimate purpose that we, in and through Christ, overcome them). Job is more or less the quintessential example of this, for early in the book we learn that the Adversary, despite being an enemy of God, necessarily has to request God's permission, and thus admit to God's authority, in order to assault Job with various ailments and trials. God, who remains sovereign and intrinsically possesses all authority, allows that Job suffer, for in His absolute benevolence He knows that it will produce a deep and abiding transformation as eventually (and by God's ability), Job moves from imperfection toward a greater perfection. Peter is yet another paradigmatic model of God's sovereignty in human temptation. Before Jesus went to be crucified, He poignantly declared to Peter:

Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers. (Luke 22:31-32)

Though Peter would deny Christ three times in the course of the evening, Jesus strengthened Him through His intercession, and even sought Peter to encourage Him after He rose from the dead and appeared to His disciples. Though the temptation was painful and even resulted in Peter's temporary denial of the Lord Jesus Christ, the product that resulted from overcoming temptation by the merits of Christ far outweighed and outlasted Peter's failings and shortcomings (note that, Peter did not overcome temptation in the original instance itself, but his life and death as a martyr are a testimony to his having overcome). Truly, as James, the brother of our Lord writes:

Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. (James 1:12)

This "weight of glory," as C. S. Lewis argues in his famous sermon The Weight of Glory, is the approbation of God that culminates in the precious words "Well done, good and faithful servant" (Matthew 25:21, 23, ESV; Lewis 2001). Still, we can only give glory and honor and praise to the great high priest who comes to give "aid" to "those who are tempted" (Hebrews 2:18, NASB). So, as with Job and with Peter, Satan received permission to bring about suffering and temptation. And, as with Job and Peter, the ability to overcome rested in the strength of God and of His Christ, evidenced, for example, by Jesus comforting Peter with the words "but I have prayed for you."
To further illustrate the importance and intention of transformation through divinely ordained temptation and suffering, allow me to share a hymn that I enjoy entitled I Asked the Lord (this was originally written by John Newton, and a beautiful remake is sung by Laura Taylor of Indelible Grace Music):

I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith and love and every grace
Might more of His salvation know
And seek more earnestly His face

Twas He who taught me thus to pray
And He I trust has answered prayer
But it has been in such a way
As almost drove me to despair

I hoped that in some favored hour
At once He'd answer my request
And by His love's constraining power
Subdue my sins and give me rest

Instead of this He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart
And let the angry powers of Hell
Assault my soul in every part

Yea more with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Cast out my feelings, laid me low

Lord why is this, I trembling cried
Wilt Thou pursue thy worm to death?
"Tis in this way" The Lord replied
"I answer prayer for grace and faith"

"These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free
And break thy schemes of earthly joy
That thou mayest seek thy all in me,
That thou mayest seek thy all in me."

Now, in the above hymn (and the aforementioned examples of Job and Peter) it is clear that suffering and trials can in many cases be, in a sense, divine incidences and circumstances that God utilizes to achieve sanctification. That is, as it is His goal to make us "partakers in the divine nature," God often disciplines us, which frequently takes the form of suffering and trials by means of temptation, "so that we may share in His holiness" (2 Peter 1:4; Hebrews 12:10). These latter examples of temptation are perhaps more similar to the explicit mentionings of the temptations of Christ in the Scriptures, for example when He was directed by the Holy Spirit to be tempted of Satan in the wilderness, or when He "was tempted in that which He [...] suffered" by His obedience to the divine will even unto His death on a cross (Matthew 4:1; Hebrews 2:18; Philippians 2:8; John 6:38). Yet, does this transformation that human beings experience through suffering and temptation extend to the Person of Christ, who was Himself both fully God and fully human? In other words, is transformation what it means for Christ to have been made "perfect [...] through sufferings" (2:10)?
What I wish to propose (though, of course this is no novel idea), and what I believe to be supported biblically, is that this type of transformation does not extend to Jesus, for He in no way moved from imperfection to perfection, as He is Himself divine and, in His incarnation wherein He became human, He was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary - thus, free from original sin. As the writer of Hebrews later maintains, Jesus was tempted "as we are, yet without sin," so He retained sinlessness throughout His life on earth (4:15). Also, Jesus, the eternal high priest, is, according to Hebrews, "holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens" (7:26). If it is indeed proper to speak of "movement" in the type of perfection that Jesus as Son of Man attained, it would only be, from our temporal perspective, movement from incompletion to completion. Jesus' "perfection" in the sense of being made "perfect" through sufferings, relates to what I have alluded to in previous posts, namely, that Jesus was not merely willing to demonstrate His love, but that He demonstrates His love for us in a genuine incarnation, a genuine self-sacrifice, and a genuine resurrection. So, He is "made perfect" by His perfection and completion of the task set before Him - indeed, He "for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down [= completed work] at the right hand of the throne of God" (12:2). Therefore, our transformation and ability to overcome temptation is predicated upon His innate and proven ability to overcome sufferings and offer up Himself as a pure and spotless Lamb to God on our behalf. Without a genuine, incarnational means of overcoming sin and suffering, God would effectively be resigning His fallen creation, Himself, and His own power to the temporal, inferior power of the devil. Why? Because He would be admitting that the purpose for which we are created is an impossibility. But Jesus Christ not only renders it "possible," He ushers in a new reality predicated upon His own Person and work, and in and through Christ we are invited to participate.
The beautiful truth expressed in these verses is that Jesus' ability to condescend to our estate, taking our human nature upon Himself, in a unique and singular way completes Jesus' innate ability to come to our rescue and offer us aid in our distress. This theme is repeated a few chapters later in Hebrews, where it is written:

For we do not have a high priest that cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15)

Our confidence to "draw near [...] to the throne of grace" is predicated upon the reality of Christ's incarnation, and the validity of His human experience, even while He fully retains His deity. Thus, He uniquely relates to humanity by His having been tempted, yet without sin, and He simultaneously offers to God perfect humanity in His own body. For this reason, for Jesus' willingness-cum-demonstration, and for His authentic temptation and suffering that characterizes His demonstration of love toward us, He can and does offer us the rescue that we need and long for.
What temptation(s) are we facing? It is never so great that Jesus has not already conquered it. In and of ourselves, we are utterly weak and helpless, but God is "our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble" (Psalm 46:1). Recall the intercession Jesus made on behalf of Peter; the same is available to us now, since Jesus "save[s] forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them" (Hebrews 7:25). Though we be tempted, yet through the living Christ we are empowered to overcome temptation by the aid that He gives - the perfection of Himself. We only have need to be found in Him, and although we may think we have a firm grasp, it is He that holds us and makes us one with Him.

[1] To be honest here, I have not read this book entirely (though the first chapter is available to view online), which is rare for me with books/authors I quote. This particular book is, after all, one principally written to and for women, which is why I have included (i.e., added) "men" to the above quotation so that it applies (as I intend it) across gender. The quote referenced above I heard mentioned on a Christian radio program.

Lewis, C. S. (2001). The weight of glory. In The Weight of Glory: And Other Essays. New York, NY: HarperOne, 25-46. (Original work published 1949)

Rose, Shirley. (2006). The Eve Factor: Resisting and Overcoming Temptation. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

I Asked the Lord is copyright (2004) of double v music.

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