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A Preliminary Exegesis of Hebrews 4:15 With a View Toward Solving the Peccability/Impeccability Issue

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In Hebrews 4:15, we are told that “we do not have a high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin” (NET). Does the author mean that the result of Jesus’ temptation was his sinlessness or that the distinction between Jesus’ temptation and our temptation is that ours arises internally, from our own sin nature, while Jesus’ temptation was only external (cf. Jas 1:14)? Or, is there some other argument the author of Hebrews has in mind that eludes us?

This is the text that is most often used by peccabilitists to argue that Jesus could havc sinned, but did not do so. The position of peccability is seen in the Latin phrase, posit non peccare (“able not to sin”). The position of impeccability is seen in the Latin phrase, non posit peccare (“not able to sin”). It is my conviction, based on several strands of evidence seen throughout the New Testament, that Jesus Christ was incapable of sinning (thus, he was impeccable). But Heb 4:15 must be dealt with if this view is to be maintained.

There are several items that are crucial in the exegesis of the text: (1) the flow of argument; (2) the force of “sympathizing with our weaknesses”; (3) the force of “in every way” (κατὰ πάντα); (4) the force of “just as we are” (καθ ᾿ ὁμοιότητα)—though this is a minor consideration; (5) the force of “without sin” (χωρὶς ἁμαρτίας)—both lexically and syntactically; and (6) the overall syntax of the sentence.

(1) The immediate flow of argument seems to argue that Christ is a good representative of us as our high priest in that he can sympathize with our human frailties. The stress, then, does not seem to be on his sinlessness—though this is still explicitly stated; rather, it seems to be on his true identification with humanity. The overall context suggests that since Jesus Christ has faced temptation—and that of the strongest sort—and has succeeded, then we too ought to hold fast to our confession. He can sympathize with our desire to defect (cf. especially the Satanic temptation for him to do so)—yet, at the same time, he provides both a model and a means for us to maintain.

(2) The force of “sympathizing with our weaknesses” again stresses the fact that Jesus understands experientially human frailty. Συν-compound verbs (such as συμπαθῆσαι here) often suggest an identification—cf. especially Rom 8:17 (the whole point of Rom 8, in one respect, is our identification with Christ [in saying this, I am not arguing for any kind of etymologically-based lexicography; rather, the common use in the NT of συν- verbs retains the classic idiom]). Admittedly, in order to give the argument of identification with our weaknesses the strongest force, one would have to affirm the full humanity of Christ (as any orthodox person would do). Further, it would seem that the force of the argument at this point would lose its punch if our high priest did not suffer when he faced temptation. This would normally present a greater problem for impeccabilitists than it would for peccabilitists, though there are analogies/arguments which ‘soft’ impeccabilitists can employ to render their view of this text a plausible one.

(3) The force of “in every way”: it is significant that the same phrase (κατὰ πάντα) is used in 2:17 where we read “he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every respect” (NET). This is no accident: the author is using an idiom to stress the identity of Christ with his people. The force of the phrase in 2:17, however, is on the fact of his humanity as a necessary prerequisite to his representative role as high priest; thus, he was truly human. (I like what Millard Erickson says: we must not say that Christ was not fully human because he did not sin; rather, we must say that our humanity is questionable because it is impure—if anything, we are not fully human, though he is [a slight paraphrase])!

Now, in point of fact, Jesus was not made like his brothers in all things—that is, all-inclusive—because he was without sin. (Paul seems to indicate this exception in the kenosis text: he argues that Jesus was ‘like men’ (ὁμοιώματι), but ‘he was found to be in form as a man.’ That is, Paul seems to use ὁμοιώματι to indicate similarity (notice the plural, men), but σχήματι to indicate identity (again, notice the singular). Thus, Jesus appeared to be just like other men, but was not (in that he was God in the flesh), yet he was still true man.

Getting back to 4:15: if κατὰ πάντα in 2:17 does not mean all-inclusive, can we argue that it does in 4:15? I’ll leave this question open for now.

(4) “Just as we are”—a minor consideration, which simply stresses the point of identification with us. However, one side note: if the author of Hebrews uses the ὁμοίος word-group in the same way that Paul does (and provided that my exegesis of Phil 2:6-7 above is correct), should we not say that he is here arguing that there is a distinction in Jesus’ suffering of temptation and ours? That it is likely in Phil 2:7 that Paul meant similarity rather than identity in his use of ὁμοιώματι is strengthened by virtually the same expression in Rom 8:3 in reference to Christ— “in the likeness [ὁμοιώματι] of sinful flesh”—obviously indicating that there is not identity.

(5 & 6—treated together) The force of “without sin”: This is the major consideration in the exegesis of the text. Did Jesus Christ face his temptations without having a sin nature/propensity to sin/possibility of sinning(?), or did his temptations simply result in his not sinning? To put it syntactically, what does χωρὶς ἁμαρτίας modify? Is it subordinate to πεπειρασμένον, κατὰ πάντα, or καθ ᾿ ὁμοιότητα? If πεπειρασμένον, then all three prepositional phrases are most likely equally subordinate; that is, Jesus’ temptations are qualified in three ways: he was tempted (1) in every area, (2) like we are tempted, (3) apart from sin. But still the problem remains: Does this mean ‘apart from sinning’? (result) or does it mean that his temptations were apart from the kind which arise out of sin (or one’s sin nature)?

If χωρὶς ἁμαρτίας is subordinate to κατὰ πάντα, then the meaning is most likely this: although he was tempted in every way, he did not sin (result). But the principle of nearest antecedent (which, however, is broken often enough) suggests rather that καθ ᾿ ὁμοιότητα controls χωρὶς ἁμαρτίας. If this is so, then the most natural way to take the whole text is to see the prepositional phrases as successively subordinate. That is, κατὰ πάντα controls καθ ᾿ ὁμοιότητα which controls χωρὶς ἁμαρτίας. All of this, of course, is subordinate to πεπειρασμένον.

So what? If we take this third view, then χωρὶς ἁμαρτίας qualifies ὁμοιότητα —that is, Jesus was tempted just as we are apart from sin. The one way in which his temptations were different was the sin factor. This certainly seems to speak of distinction in the process rather than result. It seems, on the surface at least, a bit unnatural to translate the text, as so many do, ‘yet without sin.’ One would expect δέ or ἀλλά or perhaps even μόνος. There is no disjunctive force here (though there certainly may be on the larger contextual level, requiring the use of a disjunctive in English). And the author of Hebrews writes Greek extremely well: that is, he does not normally employ asyndeton (lack of conjunction) except for solemnity (as in classical usage—see Blass-Debrunner-Funk).

In sum, at the present time I do not see χωρὶς ἁμαρτίας as referring to result—instead, this is the one way in which Jesus’ temptations were different from our own. The two preceding prepositional phrases also hint at this: κατὰ πάντα does not mean all-inclusive in 2:17 (a parallel passage, and designedly so, I think), and καθ ᾿ ὁμοιότητα indicates similarity though not absolute identity (cf. its cognate in Rom 8:3; Phil 2:7).

My preliminary exegesis of this verse, therefore, suggests that the author is using guarded language: although he is stressing Jesus’ identification with his people, the author is still attempting to show that there is some difference in the way in which he faced temptations and in the fact that we are born in sin, though he was not.

For the sake of fairness, the following is something of an exegetical rebuttal to this tentative conclusion: (1) such a view seems to fly in the face of the obvious flow of argument—namely, since Jesus is fully human, and since he has undergone the same kind of trials that we face, he understands from experience what we are going through; (2) the focus on his high priesthood suggests a strong identification with his people and their suffering—a point hard impeccabilitists probably have a difficulty with; (3) the syntax of the verse is not cut-and-dried: until the style of Hebrews is exhaustively investigated (a relatively easy task, since it comprises such a small corpus), one cannot dictate how the author normally subordinates prepositional phrases; (4) the lexical nuance of the ὁμοίος word-group as suggesting similarity rather than identity is questionable in all places; (5) the κατὰ πάντα parallel in 2:17 does not indicate that in either place an all-inclusive idea is not meant: the point in 2:17 is not Jesus’ identification with the sinfulness of his brothers and sisters, but his identification with their suffering (hence, in this qualified sense, the force of this word-group may, indeed, be identification); (5) finally, there is a lexical difficulty with assigning the meaning of ‘sin nature’ or something similar to ἁμαρτίας here: though in Paul ἁμαρτία sometimes has that force, it might be difficult to prove that it does so in Hebrews.

In the least, we must say that this text is hardly proof of either impeccability or peccability. There are too many difficulties with either view to put forth this text as a trump card for either conviction about the nature of the temptation that our Lord endured. Other passages need to be brought to bear on the topic.

Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin), Soteriology (Salvation)