The writer of Hebrews says of Jesus, “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered” (Heb 5:8).
There has been much debate about what that exactly means. In his recent (and excellent) book, The Man Christ Jesus, Bruce Ware offers two explanations:
1) Although Jesus was a Son, and as a Son he deserved only honor, allegiance, respect, and adoration from those with whom he dealt, he encountered from these very people much hatred and opposition. He was afflicted, scorned, ridiculed, and rejected by many people in many ways. And within this context of suffering, Jesus knew that his obedience to the Father and the Father’s will would mean only continued and intensified suffering. Yet, despite the suffering he knew he would receive, he resisted the temptation to avoid suffering and to turn away from the Father’s will and instead resolutely obeyed the Father every step of the way, no matter how hard things were. Indeed, Jesus learned to obey the Father’s every directive and command without fail or compromise (e.g., John 8:28-29), even at great cost, even though he knew his obedience would bring to him only intensified pain, affliction, rejection, suffering, and ultimately an agonizing death from those who opposed him.
2) Jesus obeyed the Father in the context of suffering, knowing that his obedience would only aggravate the intensity of that suffering, but Hebrews is saying more than this. And this gets at the heart of the notion that Jesus’s spiritual life was anything but static, and that Jesus in fact grew in his relationship with the Father and grew in faith every step of the way as he obeyed the Father in the midst of suffering. Notice that Hebrews does not declare (merely), “Although he was a son, he obeyed the Father in the midst of what he suffered,” as remarkable as that would be. But read carefully that this text says something additional. It declares more amazingly, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” In what sense, then, did Jesus learn to obey?
Must it not be that Hebrews is indicating that Jesus learned to obey the Father through the whole of his life with an obedience that was rendered in increasingly difficult situations as he grew and developed? As the Son learned to obey the Father in earlier times of “lighter” divine demands upon him and consequent “lighter” — suffering-lighter, that is, in comparison both to the divine demands and the suffering he would encounter in the end, as he obeyed the Father in going to the cross — these earlier experiences of faith in the Father’s provision, protection, and direction prepared him for the greater acts of obedience he would need to render as he got nearer to the time of the cross. In other words, those earlier “obediences,” we might call them, under circumstances with lighter suffering and affliction, were prescribed by the Father as the training program necessary to prepare Jesus for the later and much harder obediences that were to come. He learned to obey increasingly difficult divine demands with their accompanying increasingly difficult opposition and affliction through the whole of his life, which prepared him for the greatest of all divine demands upon him and the greatest attending suffering he would or could ever experience. In this sense, then, the difficulties and afflictions Jesus experienced through the whole of his life were planned by his Father in order to prepare Jesus for the greater — and indeed, greatest! — acts of faith he would need to render to complete the Father’s mission for his Son.
Consider a couple of indicators that seem to warrant this reading of Hebrews 5:8. First, look at what Hebrews had just told us in verse 7. We read there not only that Jesus offered up prayers and supplications to the Father throughout his life (“in the days of his flesh”) but that he did so “with loud cries and tears.” Unless we trivialize what this is declaring, would we not have to conclude that the situations this verse points to are ones in which Jesus experienced agonizing hardship and difficulty in his endeavor to obey the Father? Does this not indicate that Jesus’s trust in the Father and his dependence on what the Father alone would provide him was hard fought and won? Throughout his life he fought to believe and fought to obey and fought in prayer as he hoped in what the Father would provide. To put this point differently, Jesus’s faith and obedience during these times of testing, in which he offered supplications with loud cries and tears, were not experiences of an easy walk of faith or effortless acts of obedience. Jesus’s obedience was not automatic, as though his divine nature simply eliminated any real struggle to believe or effort to obey. No, in his human nature, Jesus fought for faith and struggled to obey; otherwise the reality that Hebrews 5:7 describes is turned into theatrics and rendered disingenuous. The inclusion of “with loud cries and tears” tells us, then, of the reality of the struggle Jesus endured as he trusted and obeyed his Father, praying earnestly for what he needed to fulfill the Father’s will.
Additionally, Jesus’s life of lighting to believe and obey is confirmed when we consider afresh his experience in the garden of Gethsemane. Matthew (26:36-46) and Mark (14:32-42) both tell us that Jesus prayed three time in the garden that the Father would remove the cup from him. Three times, also, Jesus declared that despite this deep and strong desire to avoid the agony of the cross, he longed even more to do the will of his Father, not his own will. Luke’s rendering (22:39-46) adds the poignant comment, “And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (v. 44). It is simply impossible to think deeply about these accounts and draw the conclusion that since Jesus was God, and since it was impossible for him to sin, his obedience here in the garden was both automatic and easy. Everything in these passages cries for the opposite conclusion. His obedience was anything but automatic and easy; it was rather extremely difficult and hard fought. Praying three times, as Jesus did, indicates the deep struggle to embrace in that place and time the Father’s will that he go to the cross. This battle for belief in the goodness and rightness of the Father’s will was not over quickly or easily. If there had been some resolution immediately upon praying the first time, why pray a second time, and then a third?
Furthermore, Jesus’s comment to his disciples, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me” (Matt. 26:38), indicates an agony of soul that we probably cannot even fathom. And his request that his disciples pray with him and for him also shows his earnestness of heart as he faced the impending suffering of the cross. All of these factors point to the same conclusion: Jesus felt deeply and agonizingly the weight of the suffering he was being called to endure; he longed to avoid it if at all possible, and so he prayed fervently that God would strengthen him to do it, leading him, then, to embrace fully what the Father had sent him to do.
Let me draw two conclusions from this discussion. First, Jesus’s struggle to believe and obey the Father was real! Oh, my, how horrible to the meaning of these texts, and how dishonoring to our Savior, to think or propose that because he was fully God, his obedience here and elsewhere in his life was easy and automatic. Nothing could be further from the truth. His obedience here was difficult, painful, agonizing, even tortuous, and he felt deeply and in prolonged fashion the struggle to believe and obey his Father.
Second, given the fact that this was the greatest act of obedience he rendered, requiring the deepest commitment of faith and hope in his Father, in light of the severest of all suffering he was about to encounter on the cross, does it not stand to reason, then, that the Father had prepared Jesus for this moment? Can we not now see that all the previous tests of his faith, the divine demands that he followed and the sufferings that he experienced, were preparatory and strengthening for his obeying the Father in the garden? So here’s an interesting question: Could Jesus have obeyed the Father and gone to the cross to die for our sins when he was twelve years old? Could he have done so at the outset of his ministry, at age thirty? Or did the Father know just when his Son’s faith would be strengthened sufficiently so that at this time he was able to engage the fight and withstand the temptation and declare in the end, “Not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42)? Indeed, Jesus learned obedience from the things he suffered. That is, he learned to obey increasingly difficult demands of the Father, preparing him for this hardest of all demands-going to the cross. Could he have faced this Gethsemane challenge successfully at the ages of twelve or thirty? I think the answer is no. As remarkable as his obedience was each step along the way, all of these experiences were meant to build his faith and strengthen his character so that he could, in the end, succeed in fulfilling the will of the Father in choosing to endure the agony of the cross for the remission of our sins.