Sentence Sermons - Hebrews 13:3

Have Empathy

As we continue this series of “sentence sermons,” we now come to Hebrews 13:3 – “Remember the prisoners, as though in prison with them, and those who are ill-treated, since you yourselves also are in the body.”  Again, we find a connection between this instruction and the previous instructions regarding the love of the brethren and the love of strangers (hospitality).  That connection is the manifestation of love towards other Christians through considerate deeds.

Although it is not stated explicitly here, it is implied in this commandment that those who were to be remembered were imprisoned and ill-treated because of their faith in Christ.  Earlier in the epistle, the writer indicated that such things had happened to the Hebrew Christians when they first believed (Heb. 10:32-34), and apparently there were some who remained imprisoned at the time of this writing.  In this context, this is not a general statement instructing us to remember all prisoners, although prison ministries and efforts to teach the gospel to those in jail are good and noble causes.

The way in which these Christian prisoners were to be remembered was to be a personal and vicarious experience.  This is what some would call “empathy,” which means “identification with and understanding of another's situation, feelings, and motives.”  Empathy indicates a depth of concern that goes beyond simple mental acknowledgement.  It means that when brothers and sisters in Christ are suffering, their brothers and sisters share the burden of suffering with them.  This depth of concern and sharing of burdens is a natural extension of the brotherly love that Christians are to have for one another.

Empathy is a characteristic of Christ, and the Lord exemplifies it perfectly for our learning.  In Hebrews 4:15, the Scripture says of Jesus, “For we have not a high priest that cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but one that hath been in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (ASV).  Because the Lord walked as a man, He understands Christians’ plight and considers it as if it were happening to Himself.  For example, when Saul was ravaging the church, Jesus made Himself synonymous with the church when He spoke to Saul and said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4).  This shows how Jesus experiences the sufferings of His people personally because they are His own body, which He loves.

As fellow members of Christ’s body, Christians are members of one another, and we ought to imitate the same empathy that Christ has for His body.  Consider 1Corinthians 12:26, which says, “And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.”  In the image of Jesus, Christians are to share the experiences of their brethren as if they were their own.  Empathy is not only practiced in suffering, but it is also experienced in rejoicing, just as Romans 12:15 says to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.”

Because of empathy, Christians are moved to help one another just as Jesus helps us.  We noticed above that Hebrews 4:15 tells us that Jesus understands our sufferings, but we should also notice that verse 16 says that Jesus helps us because of His understanding.  Following His example, we should seek to relieve one another’s sufferings as we would seek to relieve our own suffering.  When the writer said, “Remember the prisoners…,” it is certainly implied that the readers should not only think of the prisoners but also strive to help them in any way possible.

Although Christians in this nation are not imprisoned and ill-treated because of their faith, we must still practice empathy with one another.  It would have been easy for the Hebrew Christians to forget about their brothers and sisters in prison and out of sight, and it is too easy for us to forget about our brethren when they are out of sight.  When we only see one another in our worship assemblies and we fail to communicate with one another, then we do not know one another’s experiences enough to share them.  We also fail to practice empathy when we forget those who are shut-in and homebound due to poor health and age.  It is also easy to forget our brethren in foreign lands who still suffer abuse because their faith.  These brethren need our help and our prayers.  Therefore, let us remember them and practice empathy in the image of our Lord, which is His blessed will.  “Bear one another’s burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).

Next Sentence Sermon: Hebrews 13:4 – Let Marriage Be Held in Honor

Stacey E. Durham