Jesus "Learned Obedience" (Heb. 5:8)?
I recently received an email from Carol Robinson of Davidson, North Carolina, who asked for help in understanding Heb. 5:8-9. She wrote in part,
Hi, Dr. Guthrie,
. . . I am currently studying Hebrews with a very dear friend of mine, and am so enjoying and valuing the commentary that you wrote for the NIV Application Commentary Series. . . .
I do have a question about Hebrews 5.8 that I wondered if you could help me with. I have read your commentary on vv. 8-9, and am still struggling to understand what it means that Jesus "learned" obedience. I understand a bit better the phrase about his being "made perfect" in the sense of being brought to completion. I think that it is the word "learn" that is throwing me off . . . where was he before he learned obedience? (I understand that he was not in a place of disobedience). Was he learning a process, as any learning is for us, or did it simply "come" when he finished his path through his suffering that brought him to the point of completion that you describe?
. . . Again, I thank you so very much for your commentary. It truly is excellent, in my opinion, and is helping me tremendously as I study, giving just the right level of depth for my interests and needs. Thank you!
Here is my answer to Carol's very good question:
I am glad you are studying Hebrews and finding help in my commentary! Thanks for asking the question. . . . It is clear that you already are grasping a number of very important dynamics in the passage.
First, the verb translated as “learn” (manthanō) could be used in a variety of ways in the ancient world. It often meant “to gain knowledge or a skill” through instruction (e.g. Rom. 16:17), but it also could carry the sense of "coming to know something firsthand through personal experience,” and I think that is what we are dealing with in Hebrews 5.
So what does it mean that Jesus came to experience obedience first hand? Understandably, this verse can make us a bit uneasy if we hear it saying that Jesus was disobedient to the Father and then became obedient. But we can put aside our unease in this regard. In Heb. 4:15 the author makes clear that Jesus was in perfect obedience to the Father in terms of conforming to the Father’s will; he never sinned.
Notice that the context has to do with Jesus’ suffering and death. Verse 7, with its "loud cries and tears," actually uses language from the psalms, specifically the “psalms of righteous suffering” (like Ps. 22). So when the author says Jesus “learned obedience” he specifically had in mind Jesus’ suffering to the point of death on the cross. Jesus always said “Yes” to the Father (John 4:34; 8:29). The cross was, in a sense, his ultimate “Yes!” This is what Paul means when in Philippians he writes, "He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even to death on a cross” (Phil 2:8 HCSB).
So, when Hebrews says that Jesus "learned obedience," the author speaks of Jesus going through a new life experience, that of persevering in saying “yes” to the Father all the way to the point of death as our sacrifice for sin. This was the supreme expression of love, Jesus accomplishing something for us that we could not accomplish for ourselves. “But God demonstrates to us His own love in this way: while we were still sinners, Christ died on our behalf” (Rom. 5:8; my translation).
As you note, there are parallels here with that idea of “perfection” in the next verse. It is not that Jesus was “imperfect” before his incarnation and suffering. Rather, “perfection” in Hebrews, as scholar David Peterson has shown, has to do with “completion,” Jesus going through an experience that would make him perfectly suitable to serve as our great high priest. So Jesus was perfected in that he stayed on the path of suffering all the way to the end, thus being fully “fit" to serve as both our High Priest and the perfect sacrifice for sin.
Does this make sense?
Dear blog reader, I hope this helps clarify the passage for you as well. From time to time I will blog on questions readers ask, so if you have a pressing issue, feel free to send it my way. It may take a while to get to it, but I will try to answer the ones I can. If you would like more help on Hebrews, see my volume in the NIV Application series by Zondervan.