“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…But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”
Hebrews 5:8-9, 14 ESV
This is one of those passages in the Bible that is deceptively complex. I’ve read this passage before, but I think I have often missed some of the crucial truths buried within this passage. First of all, let’s take a closer look at some crucial parts of this passage.First of all, notice that the writer of Hebrews is talking about Jesus–the perfect, sinless God-man who always obeyed his Father. Second, allow me to highlight some important words in this passage:
“Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect…”
Some important and puzzling questions arise from these words. Wasn’t Jesus already obedient to the Father? How can someone who is perfect and omniscient learn obedience? Doesn’t that imply that he was not sufficiently obedient at one point in time? How can someone who never sinned be made perfect? How could Jesus be more perfect than he already was? Does this mean that he lacked some aspect of perfection?
I think the key lies in the type of perfection and obedience that is being described here. Of course, Jesus was in one sense already perfect and obedient. He never sinned, even in his youth, and he never disobeyed the Father. But I don’t think the author is primarily talking about sin here–he is talking about the perfection of faith. To be sure, sinlessness and perfect faith are related very closely, but they’re not the same.
Sin is, to put it simply, doing something God forbids. But faith is taking an action or attitude that is rooted in a trust or belief that God will do what he says. We see this in the definition of faith provided by the writer of Hebrews himself:
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Hebrews 11:1 ESV
We see in this definition that belief is a crucial part of faith, but we also know from James that “Faith without works is dead.” Furthermore, when we read on in the examples of faith provided by the author of the letter to the Hebrews we can see that all of his examples are people who demonstrated their belief with an action or attitude:
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac…
By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph…
By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents…
By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin…
By faith [Moses] left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible.
By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land…
[These people] through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.”
Hebrews 11:1, 17, 21, 23-25, 27-29, 33-38 ESV
Notice that all of these examples of faith use action verbs (I.e., “offered, blessed, crossed, etc.”). Faith is not merely belief, it is belief that results in action. Jesus, while he was sinless, had to learn obedience and be made perfect just as we do because the perfection the author is talking about is perfection of faith. Jesus’ faith was perfected through suffering. He suffered as a homeless man trying to find food and shelter. He suffered the rejection and persecution of the religious and political leaders of his time. He suffered constant temptation by Satan, and no doubt, the temptations that accompany the lifestyle of a single man. He suffered rejection and disbelief by his family and close friends. He suffered the stresses of ministry and constant relocation. He suffered the frustration of having to wait to begin his ministry until he was 3o. He suffered knowing that many of his followers were only there for the miracles and free bread. He suffered the weight of the knowledge of what was to come on the cross. If ever a man on earth knew suffering, it was Jesus. Isaiah describes the Messiah as “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” (Isaiah 53:3 ESV)
When Jesus began his ministry, he was perfectly sinless. But he had not yet reached perfection of his faith. That may sound strange, but perfect faith only comes through trials (See James 1:2-4 below). Furthermore, Hebrews 5:14 seems to indicate that these trials (or “opportunities to practice discernment”) will be constant. Why? Because faith, unlike belief, requires action to be made complete. For example, you can’t really say that you have faith that God will provide for your finances if you’ve never had to choose between being obedient to God in your finances (I.e., tithing) and paying your bills. If there is no action accompanying the belief, then it’s just a hypothetical belief at best, or dead faith at worst.
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?…So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead…For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.”
James 2:14, 17, 26 ESV
There is a significant lesson for us to learn in Hebrews 5.
If Jesus, the God-incarnate Messiah, was required to undergo trials of such severity and frequency in order to achieve the perfection of faith necessary to be obedient in the mission that the Father gave him, how much more trials are required for sinners such as you and I!
So many times when we undergo trials, we’re surprised by it. Oftentimes it seems like pointless pain and suffering. But for the believer, there is no such thing as pointless suffering! All suffering, in the life of a believer, is designed by God to bring us in conformity to the image of his Son. So, whatever suffering you may be enduring right now, know that God is with you in the midst of it and there’s a purpose behind it all.
Let these words of scripture sink into your heart as you meditate on what God is doing in your life:
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”
1 Peter 4:12-13 ESV
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
James 1:2-4 ESV
“The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.
Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Romans 8:16-39 ESV
What verses or passages from scripture give you comfort when you’re suffering? Share them with us in the comments below!