There is a common misunderstanding concerning Hebrews 4:15:
“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. (ESV; bold emphasis mine)
What happens during our bible studies, or even when sharing our trials, is that we reference this passage to comfort us. Rightly so, if in the proper context. Because we need to be aware of what the text isn’t communicating:
That Christ resisted every temptation to sin that we ourselves face, or that He endured every trial that we experience, yet without sin.
What the author of Hebrews does teach is that Christ was tempted (πεπειρασμένον; enduring trial and suffering in the midst of persecution) just as we are (ὁμοιότητα; in similar fashion because of his flesh), yet without sin.
Every Sin and Trial?
One example I’ve heard many times is that Christ was tempted sexually, and therefore can sympathize with our weakness when tempted to lust or watch pornography. It might have been the case that He was approached by a prostitute or immoral woman in his days on earth, but that is not how this text is to be understood.
Moreover, the text is not meant to be prescribed to someone who may be undergoing any sort of personal trial. The degree of mental and physical pain we experience can vary greatly. And the LORD is indeed compassionate and merciful to us in all of it. And yes, He does sympathize with any of our weaknesses because He Himself suffered in flesh. But we have to be cautious about inserting this Scripture in our attempts to comfort others in any of their trials, seeing that what they are experiencing may be markedly different than the intended meaning of the text.
Perseverance through Persecution
In context, Hebrews 4:15 is pertaining to the temptations we face in the midst of suffering persecution with the threat of falling away. In this way, we can receive comfort and endure hardship and trials, because we have such a great High Priest who suffered, endured in flesh, and did not fail! And by His example and gracious sympathy, we are encouraged to persevere, because Christ, as we are, was tempted in a similar fashion (not exact fashion), but without sin (without falling away).
The problem tends to be when we read the words “in every respect” and “as we are,” and interpret that to mean “every temptation/trial we face, He faced, and overcame.” As Peter T. O’Brian rightly points out:
But the meaning of ‘according to his likeness’ is better rendered by the NEB as ‘one who, because of his likeness to us, has been tested in every way, only without sin’. The Gospels indicate that Jesus was tested in some ways that were unique…In Hebrews, his temptations are viewed as ‘specifically arising from his call to suffer obedience to the will of his Father’. ‘In every respect’ (kata panta) points to ‘the reality of his humanity and the extent of his human experience. If the writer narrows his attention to the particular temptations experienced by Christ in the face of suffering, it is because the victory of Christ in this area was so vital for the achievement of salvation and because the writer is concerned to warn and encourage his readers about the dangers of apostasy‘. (2010, p. 184) (Bold emphasis mine)
O’Brian concludes by saying:
Jesus’ ability ‘to sympathize and help in their particular situation is thus emphasized by concentration on a particular aspect of his earthy experience’. (2010. p. 184) (Italics author’s emphasis)
In short, while our LORD Jesus indeed overcame sin, and every sin was placed upon Him as the wrath of God was satisfied through penal substitute, He did not need to experience every trial and temptation we face to be the sympathetic and compassionate High Priest of our souls.
Christ’s Sufferings Unique
In many ways, Christ’s suffering was His own, unique only to Him because of who He is (as O’Brian also observes). And it is similar in our case. We all go through various temptations, persecutions, and trials, but each one of us will feel and experience them differently because we are all different. A valid point can also be posed that the exquisiteness and severity of His sufferings were so much more because of His nature and person.
This doesn’t mean, however, we don’t sympathize with others, or that we couldn’t possibly fathom what they are going through. In many ways, our own suffering teaches us to be more sympathetic, though the degree of trial may vary.
But Jesus, who lived a perfect life, came in the likeness of sinful flesh, suffered persecution, scorn, and death to save us, and now calls us to take up our crosses and follow Him to glory! No servant is greater than his master (John 13:16). But, nor is there any master who’s greater than our LORD Jesus Christ.
Jesus’ Sympathy is Available
While the author of Hebrews isn’t encouraging and comforting us concerning every and any trial we face, the author is exhorting believers to persevere through persecution and suffering because the Captain of our salvation also suffered and persevered – more severely than we ever could! And the best part, He’s not so highly exalted that He has forgotten about our sufferings. But sympathizes deeply what we are feeling, having endured Himself, in flesh.
Consider this Saint. He who is high, exalted, and lifted up, far above the heavens, still stoops low, and abides among us (through the mediation of the Holy Spirit). leading us, strengthening us, and sanctifying us. Entering into our suffering, persecution, and death, but has overcome it all so that we might share in His glory.
– Until we go home
O’Brian, Peter T. (2010). The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Letter to the Hebrews. Eerdmans Publishing Co.