The Most Sympathetic Man in the World

We don’t need to suffer with an illness or a disease to feel at least some of the pain of it. For example, if we see a blind person, we pause, we think about what it must be like to have no sight, we imagine their life, and, to some degree we feel the pain of blindness.

Same thing happens when we see a veteran with no legs. If we pause long enough to run that experience through our minds, our hearts register pain. That’s called sympathy, which is literally “suffering alongside someone.”

Excruciating Sympathy
Sympathy is the second way that Christ experienced the pain of illness and disease, though he was never ill or diseased (see yesterday’s post). His sympathy with suffering produced suffering through sympathy.

By sympathy, another’s bodily sufferings became his mental, emotional, and spiritual sufferings. “In all their afflictions, he was afflicted” (lsa.63:9). He experienced their pain and sorrow without experiencing their sickness and disease. He could truly say to every sick person, “I feel your pain.” Thomas Goodwin explained:

By sympathy and pity he afflicted himself with their sickness as if it had been his own…Through a fellow-feeling of it, He took it off from them, being for them afflicted as if He himself had been sick.

Indeed, we can go further and say that he felt more pain than the sick and diseased because he had perfect humanity and therefore a better understanding of the medical problem and heightened sensitivity to the agonies of it.

To illustrate, think of a mother in a doctor’s office with her four-year-old daughter when the doctor breaks the news that the little girls has cancer. The girl had no understanding of this and continues playing on the floor with her toys. The mother feels the pain of cancer so much more due to her maturity and experience. The same thing will happen throughout the surgery, radiation, and chemo.  Though the child will suffer some pain, the mother will suffer more pain.

Expert Sympathy
Christ was an expert sympathizer. People detected his compassion and pity and were drawn to him. They could see that he entered into their sufferings and sorrows as no one else did. He thus qualifies to be a merciful and faithful high priest (Heb. 4:14; 5:2).

Expiatory Sympathy
Christ’s sufferings through sympathy were not wasted sufferings. They were part of his atoning work. When he saw suffering, he suffered “a little Calvary” in his mind and heart, pains that were part of his curse-bearing life and offered up to his father as substitutionary sufferings for his people.

Exhausting Sympathy
Like all sympathy, Christ’s was exhausting. His sighs and groans in the face of human pain expressed the drain of virtue that exited his being and weakened him. Spurgeon explained:

I can say from personal experience, that I know of nothing that wears the soul down so fast as the outflow of sincere sympathy with the sorrowing, desponding, depressed ones. I have sometimes been the means in God’s hand of helping a man who suffered with a desponding spirit; but the help I have rendered has cost me dearly. Hours after, I have been myself depressed, and I have felt an inability to shake it off. You and I have not a thousandth-part of the sympathy that was in Christ.

Yesterday we saw how Christ’s experience of sinless infirmities brought him near to the weak and weary, drawing us to him. Today, we’ve noticed a further drawing power in his perfect pity, his sensitive sympathy, by which he felt more pain by sympathy than the sufferer felt by the actual disease or illness.

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Was Jesus Ever Ill?

Did Jesus ever have a cold or the flu? Was it possible for him to contract cancer or diabetes?

The answer to that question begins by identifying the four possible states of human nature:

1. Unfallen human nature: The perfect humanity that Adam and Eve enjoyed before the fall.

2. Fallen human nature: The cursed humanity that Adam and Eve experienced post-fall and passed down to all their descendants.

3. Saved human nature: Still a fallen humanity but it’s now in the process of being redeemed.

4. Glorified human nature: Not just restored to the perfection of unfallen human nature but something even more exalted and wonderful.

So which kind of human nature did Jesus have? He didn’t have a saved human nature because he did not need to be saved. He has a glorified human nature now in heaven, but he did not have that on earth. So we’re left with two options – unfallen human nature or fallen human nature. Which was it?

Luke 1:35 supplies the answer. There, an angel told Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.”

Perfect Genetics
Christ had a holy and unfallen human nature. The intervention of the Holy Spirit in his conception ensured that his humanity was without sin and, therefore, without corruption. Jesus did not inherit any mental, physical, genetic, chemical, electrical, or biological infirmity from Mary and and none developed in him. He was never infected with germs, viruses, or disease and he did not transmit them either.

In Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement, one of the greatest books ever written on the atonement, George Smeaton wrote:

He saw no corruption, either living or dead – for sickness or disease could not, as a personal quality attach to the sinless One…Disease could not touch Him, because He did not come within the power of sin in the world; and hence we never read of His contracting any distemper or disease like other men.

His body did not see corruption in the grave and it did not see corruption in life either. He was a lamb without blemish (1 Peter 1:19) and a priest without defect (Lev. 21:17). In a sermon on Matthew 8:16-17, Charles Spurgeon put it like this:

Do not think that our Lord Jesus was actually diseased: he suffered greatly, but I read not was upon him. Probably there was no man in whom there was less tendency to natural disease than in him. His pure and blessed body was not subject to the diseases which are brought upon men through sin being in them.

This being so, we can say that Christ would actually never have died unless he had consciously chosen to voluntarily give up his life to death—which, of course, is what he did (John 10:17-18). He would have aged in the sense of growing stronger from infancy to manhood, but he would not have aged in the sense of then growing weaker in his body as the decades passed.

An Alien Christ?
Does this not distance Christ from our experience? Does this not make him an “alien” to us when we need someone to identify with us in our human weakness?

There are two answers to this? The first is to distinguish between sinless infirmities (or weaknesses) and sinful (or sin-caused) infirmities. The second is to understand how Christ can perfectly sympathize with us even without actually experiencing everything that we go through. We’ll explore that further tomorrow but let’s first clarify the distinction between sinless weaknesses and sinful weaknesses.

Sinless Weaknesses

Sinless weaknesses are things like hunger, thirst, and tiredness. These were not caused by sin but were part of the experience of unfallen Adam too (though not to the painful degree we experience them now). They are part of the essence of being limited creatures.

It’s these sinless weaknesses that the Westminster Confession speaks of when it says that Christ “took upon Him man’s nature, with all the essential properties, and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin” (WCF 8.2).

Sinful weaknesses
On the other hand, there are sinful weaknesses such as colds, flus, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, dermatitis, and so on. These weaknesses are sinful in the sense that sin caused them to enter into human nature via the divine curse upon humanity for sin. They are an essential and large part of what it is to have a fallen human nature.

As such, Christ, as the Holy One, did not and could not contract these illnesses and diseases. He experienced sinless weaknesses to the maximum (especially because his perfect human nature was more tender and sensitive than fallen human nature) but he did not experience sinful weaknesses that are part of fallen human nature. He experienced weakness but not all weaknesses, and he did not need to in order to sympathize with all our weaknesses (Heb. 4:15).

Bearing Sin Parallel
In The Heart of Christ in Heaven Towards Sinners on EarthThomas Goodwin helps us understand this by paralleling the way in which Christ could bear our sins without being personally tainted and the way he bore our sickness without ever being ill.

It may be said of Christ while he was here below that in the same sense or manner wherein he “bore our sickness,” Matthew 8:17, who yet was never personally tainted with any disease, in the same sense or manner he may be said to have borne our sins.

Tomorrow we’ll look at how Christ’s perfect pity also draws him near to us and us to him.

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Whose Body? Yours or His?

Here is the foreword I wrote to Pastor Al Martin’s new book Glorify God in your Body. You can buy it at Amazon for $8.95 or at Trinity Book Services for $6.95.

I count it an enormous privilege and honor to write this foreword for a man who has pastored me from the day after I became a Christian. Although I was never a member of Pastor Martin’s church in New Jersey, and only visited it twice in twenty-five years, I have devoured hundreds of Pastor Martin’s sermon tapes over the years after being introduced to them by a friend just after I was converted. His messages gripped my soul from the first moment of hearing them, with his passionate presentation of the Bible’s doctrines and duties leaving an unforgettable and indelible impression upon me.

When I was called to my first congregation, the first thing I did in my new study was start listening to Pastor Martin’s pastoral theology lectures. I took careful notes throughout the next few weeks and still consult them to this day. They set a direction for my life and ministry that I will forever be thankful for.

All of this was happening, of course, without Pastor Martin’s knowledge. I was just one of the thousands who were being transformed in hundreds of countries by Pastor Martin’s worldwide tape ministry. Little did I think that I would ever get to meet the man that I owed such a debt to on both the personal and pastoral level.

So how do I find myself now writing a foreword to my distant mentor’s latest book? Well, it’s a long story, and one neither of us could ever have written. But God’s story involved both Pastor Martin and I moving to Michigan, meeting at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, worshipping in the same church now for a few years, and, in God’s mysterious providence, becoming firm friends.

You can therefore imagine something of the joy with which I pen this foreword for a man that God has used (and still is using) so mightily in my life and that I owe so much to. As I read through this book with a view to writing this foreword, and heard Pastor Martin’s “voice” in its pages, it brought back memories of many precious hours I spent with my tape-recorder and Trinity Pulpit cassettes. It reminded me of so many of the characteristics of Pastor Martin’s ministry that had impacted me through the years: God-centered, biblical, practical, relevant, passionate, memorable, balanced and Gospel–centered.

This is a God-centered book. Unlike secular books on care for the body which are entirely focused on selfish motives and aims, Pastor Martin helps us do all that we do for the glory of God and he ultimately leads us to the worship of God.

The is a biblical book. You’ll probably be surprised at how many texts there are in the Bible relevant to this topic. Pastor Martin rounds up these scattered Scriptures and organizes them into a comprehensive theology of the body.

This is a practical book, offering numerous down-to-earth instructions to help readers in everyday life. These are not couched in vague generalities that might leave us wondering what Pastor Martin really means. No, the instructions are detailed, specific, and challenging, leaving us in no uncertainty as to what God requires.

This is a relevant book, dealing with the twin modern problems of body-neglect and body-worship. Indifference towards the body or idolatry of the body have characterized many cultures through the years, but our own seems to have taken these vices to new heights and depths.

This is a passionate book, one born out of Pastor Martin’s painful pastoral experience of seeing Christians choose unhealthy patterns of life, and experiencing premature death through failure to care for their bodies in a biblical way. You will feel him grabbing your heart in his appeals to consider the impact of your choices on spouses and children.

This is a memorable book, based as it is on an illustration of string of pierced pearls, a beautiful way of showing the connection between doctrine (the string) and practice (the pearls). As he writes, “Doing needs doctrine and doctrine is for doing.” You’ll never look at a necklace in the same way again.

This is a balanced book, as can be seen in Pastor Martin’s use of both biblical instruction and scientific research, his concern that Christians don’t run from one extreme to the other, and his careful combination of both law and Gospel.

On the latter point, this is a Gospel-centered book. Pastor Martin does not want to promote proud Pharisaical behavior modification, but rather wants to see Gospel-motivated, Spirit-wrought change.

“Your body—whose is it—yours or his?” asks the subtitle. It’s a question that will be burned into your heart and mind when you finish this book, and will influence every decision about how you use your body from now until eternity. I hope and pray that you will be as blessed through Pastor Martin’s written words as I have been by his spoken words.

Glorify God in your Body at Amazon for $8.95 or at Trinity Book Services for $6.95.

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