(Edited by Charles R. Biggs)
“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 4:15-16
The Heart of Christ in Heaven towards Sinners on Earth (1651) is a wonderful sermon series by Thomas Goodwin (1600-79) to stir up our affections to know the love of Christ that He has for us in His exalted state in Heaven. The subtitle of the sermon is “A Treatise Demonstrating the Glorious Disposition and Tender Affection of Christ, in His Human Nature Now in Glory, unto His Members, under All Sorts of Infirmities, Either of Sin or Misery”.
The immediate intention of the sermon was to reject the popular idea that Christians in the post-apostolic age were at a disadvantage to Christians who knew Christ on earth because Christ was now glorified. Goodwin asserted from the Holy Scriptures that Christ feels strong affections, deep compassion, and emotional sympathy toward His suffering people even while seated at God’s right hand.
Goodwin said that the Bible “does, as it were, take our hands and lay them upon Christ’s breast, and let us feel how his heart beats…toward us, even now [when] he is in glory.”
It is important to understand how Goodwin defined faith, and how it could be powerfully used to build up and edify the Christian as it focused on Christ. Gordon Crompton says that Goodwin defined faith as the spiritual sight and knowledge of Christ. In Goodwin, “we see Christ’s spiritual excellencies and His glory, and our heart is taken with them.” Michael Horton asserts that Goodwin’s favorite definition of faith was this:
“Now this Spirit, when he comes down thus into the heart, works eyes, and feet, and hands, and all to look upon Christ, and to come to Christ, and to lay hold upon Christ…. And faith is eyes, and hands, and feet, yea, and mouth, and stomach, and all; for we eat his flesh and drink his blood by faith.”
What problem does Christ’s exaltation of passing into heaven pose for our faith? What is the solution?
The Problem: Goodwin recognized that sinful men might be put off by the words “a great high priest that is passed into the heavens” (Heb. 4:15). Believers might think that the greatness of the exalted Christ might cause Him to forget us, and think something like:
…But now He has gone into a far country, where He has put on glory and immortality,” Goodwin points out. He sits as king at God’s right hand in heaven. His human nature is aflame with glory. How can we boldly approach such a king? How can we expect Him, in exalted power and holiness, to bear patiently with us when we are so weak, foolish, and sinful?”
Solution/Encouragement: Goodwin taught that Christ’s mercy is so certain that Scripture uses a double negative to forcefully declare the positive truth: “We have not a high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities.”
Our infirmities stir Christ’s compassion; Goodwin argues from Hebrews that “infirmities” include both our troubles and our sins. It is as if Jesus says to His own in His exalted state:
“Your very sins move him to pity more than to anger…even as the heart of a father is to a child that hath some loathsome disease, or as one is to a member of his body that hath the leprosy, he hates not the member, for it is his flesh, but the disease, and that provokes him to pity the part affected the more.”
Goodwin gives a helpful example of this idea; he wrote: “If your child becomes very sick, you do not kick the child out; you weep with him and tend to his needs. Christ responds to our sins with compassion despite His abhorrence of them.”
How can Christ be tender-hearted toward believers now that He is glorified and freed from all earthly pain and cares? Christ’s compassion flows out of His personal human experience. Hebrews 4:15 says that He “was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” Earlier, Hebrews 2:18 says, “For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succor [tenderly help] them that are tempted.”
Today in heaven, Jesus in His human nature knows everything that happens to believers on earth. Jesus says to His church in Revelation 2:2, “I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience.” This is possible because Christ’s human nature is filled with the Holy Spirit beyond measure, and the Spirit is like Christ’s eyes in all the earth (Rev. 5:6).
Knowing our distress here in this world of sin and misery, Our kind Lord Jesus remembers how He felt when facing similar miseries. Christ even knows the experience of sin’s guilt and the horror of facing God’s wrath against sin. Although personally sinless, Christ bore all the sins of His people. His knowledge of our pain along with the memory of His pain moves His heart to overflow with compassion.
We must remember that Christ is God and man. This is a very practical doctrine for us to understand as believers. As God, Christ is infinite, eternal, and unchanging. But, as a man, He has been lifted up to a new level of glory. Goodwin said,
“For it is certain that as his knowledge was enlarged upon his entering into glory, so his human affections of love and pity are enlarged in solidity, strength, and reality…Eph. 3:19, ‘The love of Christ,’ the God-man, ‘surpasses knowledge.’”
So Christ is not hurt by our sufferings, but His human soul responds to our sufferings with glorious, beautiful tenderness.
In Goodwin’s study of the Gospel of John, chapters 13 through 20, he showed Christ’s determination and passion toward His Beloved people. In his focus on John 13 to 17, he reminds us of Jesus’ sweet words in John 13:1: “Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end.” Even when Jesus’ mind was set on His imminent exaltation to supreme glory, Goodwin said, “his heart ran out in love towards, and was set upon, ‘his own:’…his own, a word denoting the greatest nearness, dearness, and intimacy founded upon propriety [or ownership].”
At that precise time, Jesus washed the feet of His disciples, demonstrating that Christ’s glorification would not diminish but rather increase His love and grace service to His people. Jesus said in John 14 to 16 that He would ascend to heaven to secure our happiness as believers. He would prepare a place for us, He said. And He would return like a bridegroom to bring us to our eternal home. Goodwin wrote,
“It is as if [Jesus] had said, ‘The truth is, I cannot live without you, I shall never be quiet till I have you where I am, that so we may never part again; that is the reason of it. Heaven shall not hold me, nor my Father’s company, if I have not you with me, my heart is set upon you; and if I have any glory, you shall have part of it.’”
In Goodwin’s words, Jesus said the Holy Spirit would comfort us with “nothing but stories of my love,” for He would not speak of Himself but as one sent from Christ.
Meanwhile, Christ promised to pray for us in heaven, and to send answers like love letters from a bridegroom to his beloved. He demonstrated His commitment to pray for us by interceding even then, as seen in John 17.34. Goodwin stresses that when Jesus ascended to heaven, His last earthly act was to pronounce a blessing on His disciples (Luke 24:50–51). His first official act as the enthroned king was to pour out the Holy Spirit upon His church (Acts 2:33)—all the works of the Holy Spirit testify of Christ’s present love for His church.
Goodwin asks: Does a minister preach the gospel by the Holy Spirit? It is because of Christ’s heart for sinners. Does the Spirit move you to pray? It is because Christ is praying for you. Does the New Testament express Christ’s love for sinners? It was all written “since Christ’s being in heaven, by his Spirit.”
Goodwin proved Christ’s compassion for His people from each Person of the Triune God. Goodwin explained that Christ is compassionate because of the influence of the Trinity on the ministry of Christ. The doctrine of the Trinity profoundly shaped Goodwin’s theology. Goodwin believed the ancient doctrine that “the external works of the Trinity are undivided”—that is, everything God does in creation, providence, and redemption is the work of all three persons in cooperation with each other, each acting in His own distinct manner. Christ’s ministry of compassion flows from the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
God the Father gave Christ the office of high priesthood to exhibit mercy and compassion. Goodwin says that the priesthood “requires of him all mercifulness and graciousness towards sinners that do come unto him…. As his kingly office is an office of power and dominion, and his prophetical office an office of knowledge and wisdom, so his priestly office is an office of grace and mercy.”
Everything the Father sent Christ to do, He has done for us. As Goodwin expounded, Christ died for us; He rose for us; He ascended into heaven for us; He sits at the right hand of God for us; He intercedes for us. From beginning to end, our high priest acts as the Father’s appointed surety and representative of His elect people.
The Son’s beautiful heart is a manifestation of the Father’s beautiful heart. So Goodwin invites us,
“Come first to Christ, and he will take thee by the hand, and go along with thee, and lead thee to his Father.”
In seeing the Father’s loving heart, we are assured that His obedient Son will love us forever. Goodwin also cites Matthew 11:28–29, which reveals Jesus as God’s exalted Son. But Jesus also says in these verses, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.”
Therefore, Goodwin said, we are to take the sweetest thoughts we ever had of a dear friend and raise them up infinitely higher in our thoughts of the sweetness of Jesus. What a friend we have in Jesus! His divine nature as the Son of God proves that He will have compassion on every sinner who comes to Him.
How did the Second Person of the Trinity become human like us? Luke 1:35 says that the Holy Spirit worked a miracle in the womb of a virgin. Goodwin writes,
“It was the Spirit who overshadowed his mother, and, in the meanwhile, knit that indissoluble knot between our nature and the second person, and that also knit his heart unto us.”
But Goodwin says that the Spirit did more. All the “excellencies” or graces that filled Christ’s human nature were a result of the Spirit’s work in Him. Goodwin’s comforting and cogent argument here is that “if the same Spirit that was upon him, and in him, when he was on earth, doth but still rest upon him now he is in heaven, then those dispositions must needs still rest entirely upon him.”
The Holy Spirit empowered Christ’s human nature to be a channel of God’s mercy to us. Christ’s human heart has a greater capacity for kindness than the hearts of all men and angels. God is infinitely merciful. Christ’s humanity does not make Him more merciful, but makes Him merciful in a way suited to our needs. The incarnation does not increase God’s mercy, but brings His mercy near to us.
What are the four applications to believers that Goodwin gives in The Heart of Christ? How do they apply to your life?
* Christ’s heart of compassion affords us the strongest encouragements against sin. We know that Christ is not at rest in His heart until our sins are removed. Those sins move Him more to pity than to anger even though He hates them.
* Whatever trial, temptation, or misery we may suffer, we know that Christ also endured it and that His heart moves to relieve us in our distress.
* The thought of how much we grieve Christ’s heart by sin and disobedience is the strongest incentive we have against sinning.
* In all our miseries and distresses, though every human comforter fails, we know that we have a Friend who will help, pity, and succor us: Christ in heaven.
Dear believers, how full of compassion Christ is for us as He sits upon His throne of glory. Surely, reflecting on this truth should help us rejoice in Christ and set our hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.
“What is it to have Christ thus dwell in the heart by faith?… It is to have Jesus Christ continually in one’s eye, an habitual sight of him.”
In Christ’s love,
 Some of the following digest is from A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012).