Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him (Hebrews 5:8-9 TNIV)
The Bible, and, in particular, the letter to the Hebrews, is a very complex work. There are multiple layers of meaning and the symbolism is, more likely than not, unparalleled in any other work in human history. The problem is, we of a Western mind tend to miss most of this. We have been fully immersed in a mentality that focuses on an A + B always equals C equation. And when we see something that seems to go against this grain, we have a natural tendency to either ignore it or explain it away. That is what Hebrews 5:8-9 does.
The picture of Jesus presented by Traditional Christianity is that of a man born of a virgin who lived a completely sinless life, and was in fact perfect from even the time of his conception, was crucified, died, was buried, and was raised again on the third day. A short time later, he literally ascended to Heaven. But what if some of this is not really found in the narrative stories of the Gospels?
I assert, based on this text in Hebrews, that Jesus, while being born of a virgin made pregnant by the Holy Spirit, was not instantly perfect when he was born but rather attained perfection. This is not to say that he was not the perfect incarnation of God, but only that, like all of us, his life was a journey. If the only temptations and the only struggles Jesus had in this life were those experienced while in the desert and on the cross, then it could not be true that he was “tempted in every way, just as we are” yet remained sinless (Hebrews 4:15). For him to be tempted in every way like us, he had to be tempted in every way that we are tempted.
But back to the topic at hand.
As I stated above, I assert, based on this text in Hebrews, that Jesus was not instantly perfect when he was born but rather attained perfection. So let’s take some time to study this passage of Scripture in a little more detail.
Son though he was
Although Jesus was God’s Son, this does not mean that Jesus was otherworldly. Jesus was a very human person. He even struggled with God’s will for his life. Remember what he prayed in the garden? He told God that he would rather not do what God wanted him to do. He clearly said, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me” (Matthew 26:39). True, he does go on to say that he would rather God’s will happen. But notice this: his will, Jesus’ will, is to not suffer. Jesus wants out. So even though Jesus was God’s son, he still had in him a desire for something other than what was allotted for him.
This shows us a very human side of Jesus. Jesus was just like you an me. When faced with a choice between suffering and freedom, who would rather suffer than go free? It simply goes against human nature. And Jesus was human. Jesus struggled with his will and God’s will. Jesus, although God’s son, had a will of his own and desires of his own. Yes, he was consumed with God and consumed with doing what God had sent him to do, but he was also human and he showed this side of himself openly. He even said at one point that the only one who is good is God. Jesus didn’t even call himself good.
Even though he was God’s son, he didn’t seem to see being God as something for him to assume. Paul even tells us as much.
[Jesus], though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8 ESV Emphasis mine)
So even though Jesus was God’s son, there is more to him than that.
And this is where our Western minds come into the picture. We tend to only see one facet of something when it comes to the Biblical narrative. We will either see Jesus as fully God or fully human. And more likely than not, we who come at Jesus from a Christian perspective will only see him as fully God. But with Jesus, it is not an either/or issue. It is a both/and. Jesus is both fully God and fully human. We must acknowledge both and we must acknowledge each one separately if we are to completely understand Jesus.
But where do we go from here? Even though Jesus was God’s son, what? What’s the next step? Where does the progression take us? You might be surprised.
He learned obedience from what he suffered
Jesus was not instantly obedient upon his birth, but rather he “learned” his obedience, just like every single one of us. It started with his earthly parents. When he was a young child, he and his family had been traveling with some other families. When they left the town they had traveled to, Mary realized that Jesus was not with them. She searched and searched for him but could not find him. They eventually decided to turn around and go look for him. They found him in the temple teaching and asking questions. Mary said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you” (Luke 2:48). These are not the words of a parent laughing as her kid jumped out and scared her. These are the words of a frightened mother. A mother who was scolding her son. Needless to say, we see no more of this in the Scriptures. Jesus had learned.
But there is more to it than that. He also learned his obedience, and this is what the passage states, from what he suffered. According to John Gill,
through sufferings he became obedient to death, even the death of the cross: and this he learnt
And John Wesley states,
The word learned, premised to the word suffered, elegantly shows how willingly he learned. He learned obedience, when be began to suffer; when he applied himself to drink that cup
There is agreement here. Jesus learned.
Once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation
This is where there is some controversy. I have yet to find a commentary that honestly deals with what is being said here. R. C. Sproul, one of the prominent Biblical scholars of our day, makes this statement in the Reformation Study Bible in reference to this part of the passage:
This does not mean that Jesus finally became sinless, since He was always without sin (4:15)
How are statements like these honestly dealing with the text? In fact, the verse in Hebrews that he links to this doesn’t even support what he is trying to say. Hebrews 4:15 says,
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.
Nowhere in this verse does it say that Jesus was always without sin. It says that he was tempted just like we are but didn’t sin. It is reading something into the text that is simply not there that reads this as saying that Jesus was always without sin. (Let me note here that I am not denying that Jesus was perfectly sinless. I believe that he was. But I do not believe that one can gather that information from this particular passage in the book of Hebrews. It is a stretch at the least and an example of eisogesis at most.)
What we see here, based on the Greek, is that Jesus learned obedience and once he had reached maturity, “he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him”. Jesus progressed in the journey of life until he was fully mature, just like all of us, and, once he was mature, once he had been made perfect, once he had attained a spiritual state beyond what any of us will attain, he became the source of eternal salvation.
For all who obey him
But salvation is not free from responsibility. For Jesus to be our source of salvation, we must obey him. He must be our ruler; our lord. He must lead and guide every step that we take. It is true that we are saved by faith alone, for Paul says,
[W]e maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from observing the law. (Romans 3:28)
And we are also saved by faith and works, as James tells us,
You see that people are justified by what they do and not by faith alone. (James 2:24)
So, while we are saved by faith alone, we are also saved by what we do. And according to the author of Hebrews, Jesus doesn’t become the source of eternal salvation for someone unless they obey him.
There are many more facets to this passage, but let this suffice for now. Jesus, although he was God’s son, learned obedience and learned it through what he suffered. He was not always perfect, but, like all of us, his life was a journey and he was tempted in every way we are tempted to show us that any temptation, no matter how small or great, can be overcome. And once made perfect, once every temptation had been overcome, the final temptation being to live rather than die, he became the source of our salvation, but only if we are willing to obey him.
Scriptures taken from the Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV. Copyright 2001, 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved worldwide.
Fredrick William Danker. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Third Edition [BDAG]). Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. 2000.
The Greek New Testament (Third Edition). Edited by Kurt Aland, Matthew Black, Carlo M. Martini, Bruce M. Metzger, and Allen Wikgren. West Germany: American Bible Society. 1975.
R. C. Sproul. The Reformation Study Bible. Lake Mary, FL: Ligonier Ministries. 2005.
Ray Summers (Revised by Thomas Sawyer). Essentials of New Testament Greek (Revised). United States of America: Broadman and Holman. 1995.