How Did Jesus ‘Learn Obedience’ and ‘Become Perfect’?
Chris from South Carolina writes in a really great question: “Pastor John, hello! If Jesus grew spiritually (and then Chris cites Luke 2:52 — an amazing reference), spiritual growth in its essence must be marked by something other than ‘sinning less.’ What is the essence (or perhaps ‘goal’) of spiritual growth that sin-less Jesus was moving toward?”
Excellent question. So, let me put a couple more passages of Scripture alongside of Luke 2:52 so we can see how crucial the question really is. Luke 2:52 says, “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.” This is where Chris sees growth in Jesus’s spiritual life. He increased in wisdom and he increased in favor with God and so on. So, there was some kind of movement, some kind of growth as Chris says.
Now let’s add to Luke 2:52, Hebrews 2:10, “It was fitting that he [God], for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.” Here we have God making Jesus perfect through suffering. So, Jesus is, in some sense, moving toward perfection. But here is one other passage. Hebrews 5:8–9, “Although he was a son” — although Jesus was the Son of God — “he learned obedience” — catch that phrase — “he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.”
“The writer who said Jesus learned obedience also said he never sinned.”
If you put all those together, you have Jesus increasing in wisdom, increasing in favor with God and man, being made perfect through suffering, learning obedience through what he suffered. And so Chris’s question is basically: What does all that mean if Jesus never sinned and, therefore, could not progress from a state of some sinning to no sinning? Or to be more specific, what does it mean to learn obedience or to be made perfect? And why, Chris asks, did Jesus pass through this? What is the goal? What is he moving toward if he is not ever sinning?
Let’s make sure that neither Chris, I presume, nor I, neither of us is just arbitrarily assuming that Jesus never sinned, like we have got a theology that he is sinless and we are just going to assume that he never sinned and we are not going to let these texts change our mind no matter what they say. No, no, no, no. We are not assuming this. We are reading it in the book of Hebrews. That is what makes it so significant. Hebrews probably more than any other book in the New Testament insists upon the sinless of Jesus.
For example, Hebrews 4:15, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect was tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Same thing in Hebrews 7:26. Same thing in Hebrews 9:14. So, we are not assuming Jesus was sinless. The writer who said he learned obedience said he never sinned. So he has created the problem, not us. And we are just trying to get inside the Bible writer’s head. What does it mean to be perfected or to learn obedience? And here is my suggestion.
“Jesus was not merely moving toward a completed, tested perfection, but toward fulfilling a perfect salvation for us sinners.”
“He learned obedience” means that Jesus moved from untested obedience into suffering, and then through suffering into tested and proven obedience. If you think about it, if you are good enough, you can learn a new task without failing. And the new task that Jesus had to learn every hour, especially at the end of his life was: Can I endure this suffering that I have never experienced before, this new obedience that I have never performed before in the history of the universe? Can I learn and do this perfectly without failing, without falling into unbelief and murmuring? And the answer of Hebrews is yes. He could and he did. He learned obedience in what he suffered, and he never, never, never failed once in the process of perfect learning, proven, tested obedience.
In all of Jesus’s suffering, he was being tested. Would he add obedience to obedience until he had grown into the complete, perfect, tested man, that is, the man who had been fully and completely proven and who had responded with perfect obedience, so that he could be described as fully perfected, not meaning that he passed from sinfulness to sinlessness, but that he passed from untested obedience to fully tested obedience? And I think the answer to Chris’s question about what Jesus was moving toward is not merely that he was moving toward a completed, tested perfection, but that he was moving toward fulfilling a perfect salvation for us sinners. Remember Hebrews 2:10 goes like this: “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.”
In other words, Jesus was fulfilling everything that the Father saw as fitting in becoming a Savior for sinners. Where we failed in our test, someone must completely succeed and then offer himself as the founder of our salvation so that if we trust him and we are united to him, his success in becoming a perfectly obedient person is counted as our obedience and our success. And there is one more clue in Hebrews 2:10 in answer to Chris’s question about what is the ultimate goal? What is Jesus up to? What is God up to in putting Jesus through this learning of obedience through suffering? And the answer is: It is ultimately for the glory of God. Listen, again.
“Beyond becoming a perfect Savior for us, Jesus also glorified God more fully than any other way of salvation would have done.”
“For if it was fitting for [God], for whom . . . all things exist,” — for whom are all things, it was fitting for that particular God to bring “many sons to glory” by perfecting Christ through sufferings. In other words, there was something about God’s doing it this way that was peculiarly fitting for God to get the maximum glory for whom all things exist. So, this is the way of saving sinners that would show that all things, including the death of Christ, are done for the sake of the glory of God. And that is exactly the connection Jesus makes between his obedience and the Father’s glory in John 17:4. He says, “I glorified you [Father] on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do.”
So, my ultimate answer to Chris’s question as to why Christ grew and why he learned obedience and why he was perfected through suffering is that beyond becoming a perfect Savior for us, which he did, he also glorified God more fully than any other way of salvation would have done.