Jesus knows, understands, and sympathizes with our human weaknesses. Just as every human priest who preceded Him “can deal gently with the ignorant and misguided, since he himself also is beset with weakness” (Hebrews 5:2), the Lord is also able to identify with us as His frail people.
As a child, Christ learned and grew like anyone (Luke 2:52). It is clear that He voluntarily veiled His omniscient knowledge from His human consciousness (Matthew 24:36). His sympathy toward us flows out of His experience—as a man—of all our non-sinful weaknesses. A true high priest had to be sympathetic with those to whom he ministered. A true high priest would be completely involved in the human situation, immersed in the realities of life. That’s why Jesus needed to live among men as a man, to feel with them in their highs and in their lows and deal gently with them.
Metriopatheō, besides meaning “to deal gently,” also means to treat with mildness or moderation. In the context of Hebrews 5:2, it can carry the idea of being in the middle of things—in two ways. First is the meaning of being in the midst of something and fully involved. The other is that of taking a middle ground—of knowing and understanding, but of avoiding extremes. A person with this characteristic would, for example, show a certain balance between irritation and apathy in the face of wrongdoing. He would be patient with the wrongdoer but not condone the wrong—understanding but not indulgent
A better example would be in relation to grief or danger. A person who is either too sympathetic or too apathetic cannot help someone in trouble. The one who is too sympathetic will himself be engulfed by the problem, becoming too grief stricken or too scared to be of help. On the other hand, the one who is apathetic possibly will not even recognize a problem someone else is having and, in any case, will not be concerned about helping. In the middle is the person metriopatheō describes. He can fully indentify with the person having a problem without losing his perspective and judgment. A true high priest needed this characteristic. He had to experience the extremes of human emotions and temptations while being stronger than them. Thereby he would be able to deal gently with those to whom he ministered, without falling victim to their misery.
The ones with whom the priest is to “deal gently” are those who are “ignorant and misguided,” that is, those who sin through ignorance. The Old Covenant provision was: “The priest shall make atonement before the Lord for the person who goes astray when he sins unintentionally, making atonement for him that he may be forgiven” (Numbers 15:28). The priest ministered only in behalf of those who sinned in ignorance and thus went astray. In all of the Old Testament economy, there is absolutely no provision made for the unrepentant, deliberate, and defiant lawbreaker. There is none. “But the person who does anything defiantly, whether he is native or an alien, that one is blaspheming the Lord; and that person shall be cut off from among his people” (Numbers 15:30).
So the emphasis here is on sympathy. The high priest was meant to have sympathy toward those who ignorantly went astray. Since the Jewish priest himself was a sinner, he had the natural capacity, and he ought to have had the sensitivity, to feel a little bit of what others were feeling. Jesus Christ was sympathetic with men—He was identified with them, understood them, and felt with them. Yet He did all this without ever sinning.
The Lord was Himself a man, just as surely as any high priest that served in the Tabernacle or Temple before Him. “The days of His flesh” (Hebrews 5:7) were an interlude in the life of Jesus Christ, who existed before and after His earthly life. But they were an extremely important and necessary interlude. Among other things, “He offered up both prayers and supplications” because of the anguish He faced in becoming the sin-bearing substitute for those who believe in Him. In the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before He went to the cross, Jesus prayed and agonized so intensely that He sweat great drops of blood. His heart was broken at the prospect of bearing sin. He endured God’s wrath against His people. He felt temptation. He shed tears. He hurt. He grieved. What He had always known in His omniscience, He tangibly felt as a man. He is a fully sympathetic high priest because He experienced what we experience and felt what we feel.
Often the best, and sometimes the only, way to learn sympathy is by suffering ourselves what another is suffering. Suffering is a very skilled teacher. We can read about and hear about the pain of being burned. We can even see people being burned. But until we have been burned ourselves, we cannot completely sympathize with a burn victim. I had read about, and even seen, many automobile accidents; but only after I was involved in one that almost took my life did I realize how horrible they can be.
Jesus had to learn certain things by suffering (Hebrews 5:8). He was given no exemption from hardship and pain. Even though He was God’s Son, God in human flesh, He was called to suffer. And He was obedient in His suffering all the way to death—and God therefore affirmed Him as a perfect High Priest.
That is the kind of high priest we need—one who knows and understands what we are going through. When we go to the Lord in prayer and fall on our knees before Him saying, “God, this problem, this loss, this pain is breaking my heart,” how wonderful it is to be comforted by our sympathetic Savior, who intimately understands and cares about our pain—our sympathetic High Priest “who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
(Adapted from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Hebrews)