I was a teenager when Lifeway Christianity was at its peak. I rolled up into my high school, freshman year, determined to be the biggest Jesus freak on campus. I owned all of the most clever Christian bookstore t-shirts and brought my bible to school most days. I joined the Fellowship of Christian Athletes club on Friday mornings, even though I wasn’t an athlete. I sported those WWJD bracelets like they were the keys to the kingdom. I was a walking poster child for Jesus, I made it abundantly easy for anyone who wanted to know about what Jesus would do in any given situation, to know who to ask.
No one ever asked.
There was the one goth guy in my photojournalism class that would ask me if I was wearing Jesus panties. I can still hear his voice in my head, “Like, do they have crosses on them?” He was super funny and I secretly adored him for making fun of me. I suppose it’s because his goal was to get me to lighten up and laugh at myself, he wasn’t just being a perverted asshat.
I had decided by sophomore year that I really liked boys and I was sensing that they didn’t find my cheesy style very appealing. I rid my closet of Christian witness apparel and replenished it with all-things Billabong. Threw my WWJD bracelets in a drawer and covered myself in hemp and white shells. Needless to say, I took a drastic detour from Jesus freak to party girl, broke a few hearts, including my own. By senior year, I was still low key “on mission” and would invite people to fun stuff at church. I ended up being a speaker at FCA, encouraging my classmates not to drink after prom. I don’t remember what I said exactly, though I know it was a tear-filled confession of my own party days and how I was all better now because I had repented of my heathen rebellion. I made the entire room uncomfortable, no doubt, I’m actually cringing as I type this. Being an example to the world because Jesus was my example is really what I believed the gospel to be about. This belief didn’t change as I made my way into adulthood.
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
I stumbled across Hebrews 4 yesterday as I was looking over my mini-book for a quote to share on Instagram. I say stumbled, because I was taken back by what comfort these words give me now, when they once brought a heavy dose of shame. Believing Christ to be an example instead of a substitute, means that when we face temptation, we should be able to use the law to our advantage and overcome the desire to sin. I’m no bible scholar here and plenty of smart people argue over Romans 7, but it seems to me that the apostle Paul was pretty clear on why this approach to law for us is problematic. When our sin meets the law, it becomes exceedingly sinful and we die. It’s a serious way of saying that we are not Jesus, that’s why we need Jesus.
When you believe that Jesus is primarily an example of what you are supposed to do, you miss the life-giving freedom of the gospel. Not to mention that with this view, his death appears to be a cosmic over reaction to some slight residual sins that can be worked away with enough of our efforts sprinkled with a little bit of grace. This (while probably aligning with semi-Pelagianism) dethrones Jesus as our high priest and makes him a fool for sympathizing with our weaknesses. “We’ll take it from here, Jesus!” Christ as mere example puts us back under the law that he fulfilled. You’ve a better chance at catapulting yourself to the moon with a toothpick than you do achieving holiness through trying to keep the demands of the law. Reaching for law or gospel in the face of temptation is the difference between reaching for an anvil or a life preserver when you’re drowning. What we reach for is likely to be what we will hand to others in their time of need.
The point of the verse in Hebrews is meant as a promise, a comfort. It’s not telling you to ask yourself what Jesus would do in temptation so that you can accomplish what he did. While many will thunder at you from behind wooden posts and question your salvation for not being more like Jesus, we have a great high priest who sympathizes with our weaknesses and offers help. He doesn’t beat us back with shame about our failures to law-keep or roll his eyes and yell, “I already showed you how!”, but rather, he reminds us that he law-kept on our behalf and now invites us to boldly approach the throne room of grace. It would seem that Jesus anticipated our need and made a provision. He created space to draw near to him and said it’s safe for us to show up in confidence.
“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4: 14-16)