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Stuart Chase - 27 March 2022

He Is Able (Hebrews 2:14–18)

As much as we love to imagine ourselves as able to fully obey God, the reality is that we far too often fail when the heat of temptation rises. There is wonderful news for those who find themselves unable. That news is the news of one who is able—of one who never failed, and never fails, precisely where we so often fail. The good news of the one who is able is found for us in Hebrews 2:14–18.

Scripture References: Hebrews 2:14-18

From Series: "Miscellaneous"

Sermons in this series are once-off sermons preached by various church members.

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Earl Marlatt was a professor at a Methodist theological university in the mid 1900s. He was also something of a hymnist. His most famous hymn was adapted from the story of James and John requesting positions of privilege on Jesus’ right and left hand in the resurrection. Hearing their request, Jesus replied, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptised with the baptism with which I am baptised?” The brothers answered, “We are able” (Mark 10:38–39). Adapting this story into song, Marlatt wrote,

“Are ye able,” said the Master,

“to be crucified with me?”

“Yea,” the sturdy dreamers answered,

“to the death we follow thee.”

The chorus is intended to be a declaration of the singer’s willingness to follow:

Lord, we are able:

Our spirits are thine.

Remould them, make us,

like thee, divine.

Thy guiding radiance

above us shall be

a beacon to God,

to love, and loyalty.

With the final verse, the singer declares his resolute ability to follow Christ to the bitter end:

“Are ye able?” still the Master

whispers down eternity,

and heroic spirits answer

now, as then, in Galilee.

It’s a rousing hymn in which the singer declares unequivocally his or her ability to follow Christ no matter the cost. The sad reality, we too often know, is that we rarely live up to this bold declaration. Too often, while the spirit is willing, we find the flesh oh-so-weak when tempted to compromise.

You may know the feeling. At the end of a rousing missions conference, you boldly declare your willing ability to sacrifice (financially or personally) for the sake of gospel advance, but then the end of the month—or the end of the week!—arrives and the willingness has given way to uncertainty. You walk away from a particularly meaningful devotional time, ready to face the world and the onslaught of temptation, only to find yourself caving to the first temptation you face. Your bold declaration of, “I am able!” soon gives way to a lamenting cry, “Who is sufficient for these things?”

There is wonderful news for all those who find themselves unable. That news is the news of one who is able—of one who never failed, and never fails, precisely where we so often fail. The good news of the one who is able is found for us in Hebrews 2:14–18. This text speaks to us about the reason that Christ took on human flesh and shows us at least three things that he is (was) able to accomplish, as a human being, which we were unable to do ourselves.

He Is Able to Defeat Death

First, as a human being, Christ is able to defeat death.

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.

(Hebrews 2:14–16)

In v. 13, the writer puts the words of Isaiah 8:18 into Jesus’ mouth: “Behold, I and the children God has given me.” In v. 14, he shows that, since those “children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things.” In other words, the “children” whom God gave Christ were “flesh and blood” and so it was necessary, in order to secure those children, for Christ to likewise become flesh and blood.

Why was this necessary? “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.” Death was the insurmountable problem that every child of God faced. Death is the just penalty for sin and, because we are all sinners, it is a penalty that we will all face and there is nothing we can do about it. In order to defeat death, Christ had to experience death—and since the problem was human death, Christ needed to become a human and die in order to defeat death. The writer strengthens his case when he adds, “For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham.” For Christ to defeat human death, he needed to experience human death. If he came to save angels, he would have needed to become an angel. If he came to save aliens, he would have needed to become an alien. But he came to save humans, so he needed to become human.

How did Christ’s death enable him to defeat human death? And what did he accomplish by defeating death?

Richard Phillips observes, “Death is not merely an event that awaits us, but a power that rules us.” Because of our sin, death holds real power over us. In our sin, death will eternally consume us. We are powerless to overcome it.

Not so Christ. Though he experienced death, death had no power over him because he never sinned. He gave up his life as a substitute for those he came to save, but the grave could not hold him. He displayed the powerlessness of death over him when he rose from the grave three days later.

Understanding that Christ, through death, defeated death should help us in the face of our own death. The text makes it plain that fear of death is quite normal. But Christ’s defeat of death should help minimise our fear of death. Death is powerless against Christ. When he defeated death, he also “deliver[ed] all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” Christians can face death with confidence, not because death is an insignificant thing, but because death is powerless against Christ. Those who face death without faith in Christ have every reason to fear, for death will hold eternal sway over them. We who trust in Christ face death with a very different outlook because, for us, death itself will face eternal defeat through Christ.

He Is Able to Provide Propitiation

Second, as a human being, Christ is able to provide propitiation: “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” (v. 17).

Every field of study has certain terms that it employs that are foreign to those who are not, as they say, down with the lingo. “Propitiation” is not a term that we use every day. Simply put, “propitiation” means to appease God, and thereby turn away his wrath and reconcile people to him, by means of a sacrifice. The CSB attempts to capture a fuller meaning of this by translating the word as “atoning sacrifice.”

By means of his sacrifice (death) on the cross, Christ is able to turn away God’s wrath from sinners and reconcile those sinners to him. Through Christ’s death, we can escape the penalty of sin and enter into a living relationship with God.

Under the old covenant, the act of appeasing God’s wrath by means of sacrifice was the responsibility of the priests. The priests would offer sacrifices to achieve this end. Those sacrifices, however, were but a shadow of the greater sacrifice to come. Animal sacrifices could never provide eternal atonement. But Christ’s sacrifice could. “His work was one of propitiation, turning aside God’s wrath from our sin” (Phillips).

By becoming human, and taking upon himself the penalty for human sin, Christ provided propitiation for all the children God gave to him. This provides us with great hope when we sin. When our “I am able” turns into “Woe is me!” we can look to Christ and rejoice that our standing before God is not dependent on our righteousness. We are accepted in the Beloved. We stand or fall before God based on our trust in Christ. Does the guilt and shame of your sin overwhelm you? Are you weighed down by your inability to perfectly please God despite your very best efforts? Then look to Christ, who, because he took on human flesh, is able to provide propitiation for those who come to him in faith.

He Is Able to Action Assistance

Third, as a human being, Christ is able to action assistance: “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (v. 18). To “help” in this verse implies active provision of what we need when we are tempted. In other words, when we are tempted, Christ doesn’t just offer some advice that may help if we take it. He gives us everything we need to overcome temptation in the moment so that, when we cave to temptation, it is entirely our fault and not his. It was necessary for Christ to become human to provide this assistance.

When he became a man, Christ experienced temptation. He knows exactly what it is like to feel the weight of temptation to sin. Some have claimed that Christ cannot claim to know the full human experience of temptation because he never sinned. In fact, his sinlessness only intensifies his ability to sympathise with us. Westcott eloquently stated the truth of the matter when he wrote, “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.” None of us will ever experience the force of temptation to the degree that Christ experienced it because we always cave to temptation at some point. But the world and the devil threw absolutely everything they had at Christ without success. He knows far more about the weight of temptation than we will ever know.

When you feel the weight of trial and temptation, Jesus is able to sympathise with you in your need. He understands what you are going through. He offers a sympathetic ear and an understanding heart when you cry out to him in your pain. No matter your trial, no matter your temptation, Jesus is there to hear your prayer.

More significantly, however, Jesus is able to help you. That temptation that overtakes you time and again is not beyond hope. Christ can give you what you need to attain victory over sin in your life. He knows what it to experience the crushing weight of temptation—and he knows exactly what you need to resist the temptation and embrace victory over sin.

Are You Willing?

Phillips helpfully summarises the wonder of the incarnation: “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?”

Are you willing to come to the Lord Jesus Christ, confessing your inability and your weakness, and casting yourself fully on him for grace and power to overcome sin and to persevere in trial? The table reminds us of this glorious truth. As we break the bread, we remember that Christ took on flesh for us. As we drink the cup, we remember what he suffered for us. And as we remember his death, we rejoice that he is alive, seated at the right hand of God as our great High Priest who is able to sympathise with us and give us what we need for life and godliness.