Empathy: Standing in Your Shoes

by Jan Shrader

Matthew 3:13-4:11

Have you ever wanted to read a biography of someone you admired, a person you were curious about? After her death I found Roselyn Carter’s life fascinating. I especially admired her 77 years of marriage to President Carter. Theirs is the longest marriage of any United States President. How they worked to keep their love alive is impressive to me. One of their daily habits was to read their Bibles together every night. And, when they were to be separated, before they parted they would agree on what Bible passages they would be reading in the evening in each other’s absence. I love this and think this was such a sweet way they stayed connected.

Throughout our marriage Gary and I were often physically separated as he circled the globe on mission trips, and I kept the home fires burning with our kids. While I was temporally a single mom I think knowing Gary was reading the same biblical passages as me would have comforted and strengthened me in my lonely evenings. It also, might have spiritually awakened me to the many challenges Gary was facing on these mission trips. On more than one occasion Gary’s life was endangered while we were apart, but unfortunately I was often preoccupied indulging in a tea party with self-pity. Studying a godly person’s life has often cultivated real change in me and taught me new strategies.

Ironically, the Bible teaches us that when God took on a body he became like us in every way, he imitated us and yet was without sin. To come to a deeper understanding of the implications of the Incarnation, which is what we call the earthly time when Jesus took on a body, we need to remember that scripture is the best commentary on scripture. So, before we study a passage in Matthew on Jesus’ temptations I want us to check out some background information from the book of Hebrews.Hebrews 2:17-18 says this when speaking of Jesus’ incarnation,

17 Therefore, he had to be like his brothers and sisters in every way, so that he could become a merciful and faithful high priest in matters pertaining to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people. 18 For since he himself has suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted. CSB

What did Jesus gain from this experiential knowledge of suffering when he was tempted? As the creator of time on one level God has always known the end from the beginning. But, we could say that becoming flesh grew Jesus’ empathy for us, something he would need to stand as our faithful high priest. This means Jesus genuinely suffered when he was tempted. Now, look at Hebrews 4:15, this is another verse that helps us grasp the scope of the incarnation.

15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin. CSB

We learn from these verses in Hebrews that to be tempted is not the same as committing a sin. Giving into temptation is when we sin. Jesus wanted to know what it felt like to be us, but he never sinned. It is incredibly comforting to me that Jesus can empathize with our weaknesses. Look at Matthew 4:1-11.

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. Then the tempter approached him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

He answered, “It is written: Man must not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Then the devil took him to the holy city, had him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written:

He will give his angels orders concerning you,
and they will support you with their hands
so that you will not strike
your foot against a stone.”

Jesus told him, “It is also written: Do not test the Lord your God.”  

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. And he said to him, “I will give you all these things if you will fall down and worship me.”

10 Then Jesus told him, “Go away Satan! For it is written: Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and began to serve him. CSB

These temptations recorded in Matthew 4 are not the only ones Jesus faced on earth because the book of Hebrews tell us he was tempted in every way that we are tempted. But, it is interesting that these are the ones Matthew felt most compelled to record. These three temptations share something in common that it is extremely helpful for us to identify. In each example Jesus was tempted to get ahead of the Father’s timing. In the Greek New Testament there are two different words translated as time in our English Bibles. The first word is Chronos and it is the marking of time off of a calendar. Our English word Chronological comes from the Greek word Chronos. The second Greek word we translate Time in our English New Testaments is Kairos. Kairos always refers to an appointed time. One of the most difficult challenges we face on earth is waiting for God’s appointed time. Every temptation found in Matthew has to do with Jesus taking a shortcut in time to accomplish God’s will. Reread each temptation and let me give you some commentary to explain what I mean.

1) “If you are the son of God tell these stones to become bread” CSB (Matthew 4:1-4.) Eventually, Jesus will supernaturally create bread when he feeds the crowds of people who come to hear him teach. He won’t make bread out of stones, but his multiplying and providing bread is still a supernatural event. As the Son of God the Father wanted him to create bread on a specific day and for a specific purpose.

2) “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: He will give his angels orders concerning you and they will support you with their hands so that you will not strike your foot against a stone” CSB (Matthew 4:5-7.) Eventually, as the Son of God Jesus will travel to Jerusalem and willingly laydown his life to die on a cross for all the sins of the world. He will not be testing God by throwing his body off the temple’s pinnacle, but after three years of public ministry he knows he is going to Jerusalem to die (Luke 9:44-45, 18:31-34). At Jesus’ arrest he reminds us he could have called twelve legions of angels to deliver him (Matthew 26:51-54). A Roman legion had between 5,000 to 6,000 soldiers, so this was a lot of angelic warriors Jesus could have summoned, but he didn’t.  

One of the threats Jesus had to balance then was to not die prematurely before he could finish his earthly ministry. While his daily task regularly angered the religious leaders, there was an appointed day God had set aside for him to die. This was why Jesus chose to spend much of his public ministry around the Galilee. It was a more remote region, filled with common people who were not constantly under the influence of the religious elite found in Jerusalem. Jesus submits to God’s plan that was set in motion when he took on a body. When the day comes for his sacrifice he willingly was led like a lamb to the slaughter (Acts 8:32-33).

3) “I will give you all these things if you will fall down and worship me” CSB (Matthew 4:8-11.) Eventually, at the end of the age every knee will bow down and worship Jesus, and one day every tongue will confess he is Lord (Philippians 2:10-11). When this day arrives the Father will give the nations to Jesus as his inheritance (Psalm 2:7-8). But, not yet!

With these three temptations Satan was offering Jesus a quick bypass through his earthly ministry, his future sufferings, and that appointed time when the kingdoms of this earth will become the kingdoms of our God. We clearly see that not only is God’s will perfect, but his timing is perfection (2 Peter 3:8-10). As our creator (John 1:10) Jesus knew all things, but when he took on a body he felt the way we feel. Just like us, Jesus suffered when he was genuinely tempted. In Hebrews 5:8 it says this about Jesus.

Although he was the Son, he learned obedience from what he suffered. CSB

When we think of Christ’s sufferings we often go to the brutality of the cross and we should, but when we exclusively do this we sometimes miss how much Jesus identifies with us in our weaknesses. Like Christ, we suffer when we are tempted. Resisting temptation is emotionally and spiritually hard. For this reason submitting to the fullness of God’s time is just as serious as submitting to God’s revealed will. So, what might change if we knew God had empathy for us? What might change if we believed he knew exactly how it felt to be us?

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