The Perfecting of Jesus Christ
The fifth chapter of the book of Hebrews has to do with Jesus Christ as our high priest. The chapter naturally divides into four segments.
- The nature of the high priest’s office under the Mosaic system.
- The appointment of Jesus as our high priest.
- The Lord’s qualifications to be high priest.
- The Christian’s responsibility to Christ as high priest.
It is within this context that the following problematic statement is found.
“[T]hough he was a son, yet learned obedience by the things which he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became unto all them that obey him the author of eternal salvation” (8-9).
There are a number of rich truths in these two verses.
Jesus, a Son
First, there is the declaration that Jesus, as to His nature, is Son. The absence of a definite article in the original text reveals that sonship, as a quality, is in view.
Christ’s identity as the Son of God can be established on several grounds. He is proved to be the Son of God by virtue of:
- His birth to the virgin Mary (Mt. 1:18-25; Lk. 2:1-39);
- The signs which He performed (Jn. 20:30,31);
- The testimony of the Father Himself (Mt. 3:17; 17:5);
- His resurrection from the dead (Rom. 1:4).
Jesus, in the Flesh
Herein we learn something of the nature of the incarnation (the eternal Word becoming flesh — Jn. 1:1,14). One might expect that Jesus, as the Son of God, would have been exempt from normal human experiences, but such was not the case. In this affirmation we note that:
Though He was omniscient as eternal God, nevertheless, as Son, He had emptied Himself of the independent exercise of certain attributes (Phil. 2:6,7). Accordingly, He could expand His intellectual capacity — which He did (Lk. 2:40,52).
The Lord learned obedience.
This does not imply that He was ever disobedient. Rather it simply suggests that as Jesus’ mental and spiritual faculties increased, commensurate with the maturation process, He progressively learned deeper levels of obedience. We learn by our mistakes, but Jesus never did. He simply matured in His devotion to doing the will of God.
Christ learned obedience through suffering.
Job’s contemporaries believed that all suffering is the direct result of personal sin — they were wrong. Some suffering is the result of others’ sins. Jesus suffered because, as an apostle of Heaven to wicked humanity, His message ran counter to the lusts of ambitious rebels (Jn. 8:42-44). He suffered to fulfill the prophetic message of ancient spokesmen (Isa. 53:1-12). He suffered to qualify Himself as a merciful and faithful high priest (Heb. 2:17,18).
Christ suffered because there was no other way to atone for the sin of lost mankind (Heb. 2:14,15; 1 Pet. 2:21-25). In view of the ordeal that Jesus endured, it can never be charged fairly that human suffering is at odds with the existence of a benevolent Creator.
Jesus Earned the Right To Be the Author of Eternal Life
Because of His suffering, Christ is the exclusive author (literally, the source) of eternal salvation — to those who will accept such. There is no access to eternal redemption apart from the Savior. No one comes to the Father except by Him (Jn. 14:6), and liberal clergymen who apologize for this dogmatism in Christian doctrine are a disgrace to the name of Jesus Christ.
Jesus, the Exclusive Source of Salvation
The Lord is the source of salvation only to those who obey him. Of special interest is the fact that “obey,” in the original language, is a present tense, participle form. The thrust is — the “ever-obeying him ones.”
This absolutely negates the sectarian notion that one is eternally saved by a single act, namely belief, and that salvation is a “done deal” from that point onward. Sustained obedience is essential to the reception of eternal salvation.
Jesus, Made Perfect
Having said all of this, we now direct our attention to the most difficult aspect of the narrative. It is the declaration that Jesus, through suffering, was “made perfect.”
Elsewhere in this epistle similar sentiments are expressed (cf. 2:10; 7:28). If Christ was “made perfect” through suffering, does that not imply that He was imperfect formerly? So the common translations would appear to suggest.
But this simply cannot be the case, for the continuous moral perfection of Jesus is abundantly affirmed in the Scriptures (see Jn. 8:29,46; 2 Cor. 5:21). Peter’s use of the aorist tense verbal form (1 Pet. 2:22), plainly asserts that Jesus never committed a single sin!
What, then, does the expression “being made perfect,” mean?
The Greek word is teleioo, and the term has a variety of possible meanings. It can denote to fulfill, to bring something to its goal, to make perfect, to consecrate, etc. (Arndt & Gingrich, pp. 817,818). In the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament), in contexts dealing with the high priest, it carried the notion of being consecrated, hence qualified, to perform certain tasks (Lev. 4:5; 21:10).
“Jesus is qualified to come before God (5:8-9), not by cleansing, but by proving his obedience. His is an eternal qualification (7:28) which enables him, by his once-for-all high-priestly work, to qualify those whom he represents to come before God (10:14) in the heavenly sanctuary as those whose sins are expiated” (Delling, 1166).
Goodspeed rendered the passage in this way:
“And although he was a son, he learned to obey, through what he suffered, and when he was fully qualified, he became a source of salvation for all who obey him, since God pronounced him a high priest of the priesthood of Melchizedek” (p. 508).
Hugo McCord translated the phrase, “he was made complete” (p. 422), which suggests a similar idea — the completion of His work.
One thing is certain. Christ was never imperfect in any moral or spiritual sense. And no translation of the English Bible should imply that He was.
- Arndt, William & Gingrich, F.W. (1967), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
- Delling, Gerhard (1985), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, G. W. Broimley, Ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
- Goodspeed, Edgar J. (1943), The Goodspeed Parallel New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
- McCord, Hugo (1988), McCord’s New Testament Translation (Henderson, TN: Freed-Hardeman University).