Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What Jesus Learned

By Sean McDonough, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

The book of Hebrews is not standard Christmastime reading. But I was struck by the Advent relevance of these verses from Hebrews 5:8-9: “Although he was the son, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and after he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all those who obey him.”
It is easy for us to become functional Docetists, who imagine that Jesus only seemed to become human – after all, he is who God is, so how could he get mixed up with us? We might somewhat grudgingly concede that his incarnation is necessary for him to be a sacrifice for sins (a point Hebrews is also at pains to make in a later chapter), but does it really make a difference in who he is?
The answer of Hebrews is a resounding Yes. This portion of the book focuses on Jesus’ role as high priest. In order to be a faithful high priest, the author reasons, Jesus has to be able to sympathize with the people. He cannot do this if he has not experienced the same things they have experienced. And so he states quite carefully that Jesus learned obedience. This does not mean, of course, that Jesus had to “learn to be obedient” in the way we do – by combatting our inveterate tendency to disobey. But it does mean that he needed to experience suffering and temptation first-hand to qualify as a high priest. How else could he genuinely relate to us as we struggle in this world day by day?
Verse 9 makes the same point in equally expressive language – Jesus’ sufferings “perfected” him. In a sense, Jesus was already perfect – but with respect to being qualified as our high priest, he needed those sufferings to complete him for the job.
It is difficult to know what is more marvelous here: the astounding theological truth that the incarnation is absolutely integral to Jesus’ role as high priest, or the unspeakably powerful comfort it is to know that Jesus really does understand what we are going through even in the darkest times. As we strive to maintain our faith-filled obedience in this world (remember, he is the source of salvation to those who obey him, v.9), it is a blessing to know that he himself has learned obedience through his sufferings, and thus can be trusted to help us stay faithful no matter what the circumstances might be. And because he saw his task through to the end – been “ perfected”-- he can help us as we struggle towards maturity in our lives [the same root lies behind Jesus’ “perfection” in v.9 and the call to Christian maturity in v.14].
The blessings of Christmas, then, certainly do not end in the manger, nor do they even end at the cross. What Jesus learned on earth is a source of continuing comfort, as we bring our troubles day by day to our sympathetic friend and priest.

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