Why Did Jesus Need to ‘Learn Obedience’?
Merry Christmas to you all! Depending on when you listen, perhaps Sunday night, on Christmas Eve. Or on Christmas Day. Either way, from all of us at desiringGod.org, I want to wish you a very Merry Christmas. Thank you for listening.
This is, of course, the season to reckon with the fact that almighty God became a little boy. And not only that — Jesus grew up and matured. Which leads to this question from Tina. “Hello, Pastor John, I need your help! Could you explain to me Hebrews 5:8–9? Particularly this Christmas season I want to better understand the early years after the incarnation, specifically how Jesus ‘learned obedience’ and had to ‘be made perfect’ as a child. These verses make it sound like Jesus wasn’t fully God and fully human but that he had to work his way to perfection and obedience? What did human maturity look like in Jesus the little boy?”
I did a whole Ask Pastor John on these two verses, Hebrews 5:8–9, in June 2016. So let me just give the conclusion of that effort, and then tackle what I think she’s most curious about — namely, Jesus as a boy.
Tested and Tried
Here’s the passage. “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” (Hebrews 5:8–9). Now, this same book says Christ was tempted in every way, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). So, learning obedience from what he suffered and being made perfect doesn’t mean he moved from being in a state of sin to being in a state of sinless perfection. They don’t mean this because the author makes clear Jesus never sinned. Well, what do they mean, then? What does it imply that he “learned obedience”?
“He moved from untested or untried obedience to fully tested, fully tried obedience.”
What they mean is this. He learned obedience, not in the sense that he moved from disobedience to obedience, but that he moved from untested or untried obedience to fully tested, fully tried obedience. So he was being tested at every point and proving himself obedient at every point. Like you would be giving a person a test and he gets an A on every one.
So it’s not like, “He proved his obedience by getting all As, so he must have had Bs.” No, you can get an A on every test if you’re Jesus. And “he was made perfect” doesn’t mean that he moved from sinful imperfection to sinless perfection, but that he moved from incomplete obedience to full, complete, total-life, finished obedience that fitted him perfectly for his great sacrifice.
So the question that Tina is asking, I think, is, What we can know about this younger, less-mature, less-complete person Jesus Christ as a youth? So let’s read the one story that we have in Luke 2:40–52. We get one glimpse into this boy’s life, and here it is.
And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him. Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but supposing him to be in the group they went a day’s journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. And when his parents saw him, they were astonished. And his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” [Note: Or “about my father’s business.” It’s sort of “my father’s things,” and you have to decide what in particular is meant there — “my father’s business” or “my father’s house.”] They did not understand the saying that he spoke to them. And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.” (Luke 2:40–52)
Jesus as a Boy
Now, I see four things you can say about Jesus as a boy from this.
1. Jesus was sufficiently intelligent and articulate and informed in the Scriptures. He could interact with the temple teachers so as to amaze them.
“If the Gospel writers included lots of stories about his boyhood, that would distract from what Jesus came to be.”
2. When asked why he stayed behind in the temple, he answered, “This is my father’s house,” or, “This is my father’s business.” In other words, “This is my real calling, not carpentry. Joseph’s house and Joseph’s business is not mine. God is my ultimate father, not the carpenter Joseph. I’m going to be back here in some years to show these teachers how I came to fulfill these Scriptures.”
3. He was submissive to his parents in a way that did not compromise his calling and did not compromise their authority.
4. He grew in wisdom and stature in a way that won favor with people and with God.
And I would add a fifth point, not from this passage, but from Hebrews 4:15, 1 Peter 2:22, 1 John 3:5, John 8:46, and 2 Corinthians 5:21. In all his life, Jesus never sinned. He was sinless all through his boyhood and young adulthood.
Manger to Cross
But here is the most striking and probably the most important thing to realize. In the four accounts of Jesus’s life — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — this is the only glimpse into this young boyhood, or any of his life up until he was thirty years old. The gospels are not ordinary biographies. What a weird biography. He was born and he turned thirty.
They focus almost entirely on the last three years of Jesus’s life. And the question is, why? I assume it’s because if the Gospel writers included lots of stories about his boyhood, they would be seriously distracting from what he came to be and do. They would stir up unhelpful curiosity about things that are not crucial. So it seems to me that the vast silence about Jesus’s childhood is a huge megaphone to the last three years of his life, saying, “Look at this, look at this, linger over this.” Surely that is what we should do this Christmas.
“The vast silence about Jesus’s childhood is a huge megaphone to the last three years of his life.”
Glory in the arrival of Jesus as the God-man. Then do what Paul did in Philippians 2:8. This is amazing. I wonder if everybody who is listening has thought about this when they read this. Here is Paul’s summary from manger to crucifixion of the life of Jesus in one verse: “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Period.
Found in human form: manger. Next main event: cross. Amazing! I think that’s the way we should celebrate Christmas. Every carol, every candle, every present, every meal, every mistletoe, every manger scene catapulting us over thirty years to the cross.
That’s why he came, that’s why it’s a merry, merry Christmas. Behold, “I bring you good news of great joy,” — good news of great, great, great joy — “that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10–11). And the way he saved was at the cross.