These passages have long puzzled Christians:
Here I offer you a two for one package deal. These two passages are related, and both have long raised questions for many believers. The first speaks of Jesus becoming “perfect through what he suffered” while the second one speaks of Jesus learning “obedience from what he suffered” and then being “made perfect”.
The difficulty of course is this: How are we to understand Jesus becoming perfect and obedient? How is Jesus, who is fully God – yet also fully man – anything less than perfect? And how can he not be fully obedient? And how does suffering relate to all this?
Christians believe that Jesus is the perfect and spotless Son of God who was always fully obedient to the Father. If so, then how are we to understand these two passages? And what are we to make of the connection to suffering in each one? That is what we will try to get to the bottom of here.
Let me first offer each passage within the larger context in which it is found, with the relevant portions underlined:
Hebrews 2:9-10 But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.
Hebrews 5:7-10 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.
Before looking at each passage in turn, a few things can be said about both. A major way we try to resolve any problems here is to bear in mind the standard Christian understanding of the person of Christ – something I already mentioned. And that is, he is one person with two natures: a human nature and a divine nature.
Being fully God he of course is sinless and perfectly obedient. So how ever we are to understand these verses, we need to also consider the humanity of Christ, not just his deity. Related to this, we know from elsewhere in Hebrews (let alone the rest of the New Testament) that Jesus is assumed to be without sin, and that he never disobeyed. See Heb. 4:15 and 7:26-27 for example.
As to the first verse in question, the phrase “perfect through sufferings” is, as Peter O’Brien says, an “unusual expression [that] has been the subject of significant exegetical and theological debate since earliest times.” The context has to do with securing salvation for lost sinners, and the suffering spoken of is especially associated with the suffering Jesus endured on the cross. Many see the perfection being spoken of here as having to do with his office or vocation, not his nature or character. It is a functional perfection, not a moral perfection.
Various commentators can be brought in here. One of the earlier of the more modern commentaries on this is the 1964 NICNT commentary by F. F. Bruce. He says the following about Heb. 2:10:
But what is meant by His being made “perfect” through His sufferings? If the Son of God is the effulgence of His Father’s glory and the very impress of His being, how can he be thought of as falling short of perfection? The answer is this: the perfect Son of God has become His people’s perfect Savior, opening up their way to God; and in order to become that, He must endure suffering and death. The pathway of perfection which His people must treat must first be trodden by the Pathfinder; only so could He be their adequate representative and high priest in the presence of God.
Thomas Schreiner says this about the passage:
Jesus as the source and pioneer is perfected through his sufferings. Perfection here does not denote, given the insistence on Jesus’ sinlessness elsewhere in Hebrews (4:15; 7:26-27), that Jesus was perfected morally in the sense that he was deficient previously. The word “perfect” in the OT is used of the consecration of priests to indicate that they were qualified for office (cf. Ex. 29:22,26; Lev. 7:37; 8:22). Jesus is perfected in that he reaches God’s intended goal by his obedience, suffering, death and exaltation. Perfection, then, is best characterized as vocational so that, like the priests in the OT, he is qualified for his office as priest-king. Even though perfection is not Jesus’ moral improvement, it has an experiential and existential dimension and in that sense includes the obedience and sufferings that qualified Jesus to serve as High Priest.
William Lane also emphasises the priestly work of Christ: “The ‘perfection’ of Jesus in this context (cf. 5:8-9; 7:28) has functional implications. The emphasis falls on the notion that he was fully equipped for his office. God qualified Jesus to come before him in priestly action. He perfected him as a priest of his people through his sufferings, which permitted him to accomplish his redemptive mission.”
Concerning Heb. 5:8-9, the emphasis on Jesus as the faithful high priest is again the focus. David Allen says this about Jesus being ‘made perfect’:
This verb is probably best taken in the broader sense of vocational qualification and personal completion, in a non-moral sense of course, which includes within its semantic orbit the notion of consecration. In both Heb. 2:10 and 5:9, the perfecting of Christ is connected to his sufferings. According to Heb. 2:14-18, Christ’s sufferings functioned in some sense as the means by which Jesus is qualified to be high priest. According to Heb 5:8,9, Jesus learned obedience from what he suffered, resulting in his being made “perfect.” He was, by the process of suffering and death, prepared for the office of high priest.
George Guthrie also looks at how we are to understand the verb in question:
Rather than conveying the idea of overcoming a moral deficiency, the aorist passive participle teleiotheis (translated as “once made perfect” by the NIV) communicates the concept of “finishing” or “completing.” By making it all the way to the end of his Passion, Jesus was made “complete” in the sense of being able to fulfill his role as our high priest. He finished the course. He drank the full measure of the experience that was needed in order to come before the throne with a sacrifice with which our sins would be addressed. Moreover, that he “learned obedience” means that the Son said “yes” to the Father’s will in an extreme situation that he had not yet encountered.
And Schreiner is also worth quoting from again:
The word “learned” suggests a process. There is no suggestion that Jesus ever disobeyed (cf. 4:15; 7:26), as if he had to learn to obey because he disobeyed previously. As Koester says, “To say that Jesus ‘learned obedience’ does not mean that he was formerly disobedient any more than saying that he ‘became a merciful and faithful high priest’ means that he was formerly callous or faithless.” The verse, however, emphasizes Jesus’ humanity. He learned how to obey in the anvil of human experience, as he experienced life day by day. In particular he learned obedience in his sufferings.
Another comment from O’Brien is worth featuring here:
According to Hebrews, Jesus, who was without sin (4:15), was obedient throughout his life. On his entry into the world he announced that he delighted to do God’s will (10:5-10). ‘To learn obedience’, then, meant coming to appreciate fully what conforming to God’s will involved. But this is not to suggest that Jesus had previously been disobedient, and now needed to grasp what it meant to obey the will of God. Rather, authentic obedience is practised in particular, concrete circumstances. So, as Jesus encountered fresh situations – and the focus of the text is on his suffering – his faithfulness to God was challenged, and his unfailing obedience to the Father’s will was tested again and again. That testing occurred throughout his suffering, which culminated in his death. Hebrews makes it clear that suffering, and death are fully compatible with Jesus’ status as the eternal Son, and are an essential part of his saving work (see v. 9).
The words of R. Kent Hughes, as he comments on Heb. 2:10, will suffice as a fitting conclusion to this article:
“All of this – his perfection in incarnation, temptation, and atonement – rendered in our pioneer a perfect identification with us. It was impossible for God to fully identify and thus fully sympathize with mankind apart from Christ’s incarnation and human experience. But now Christ’s perfection makes possible an unlimited capacity to sympathize with those exposed to troubles and temptations in this life.”
What a Saviour.