Jesus is our great high priest. This is the point the author of Hebrews is making. Israel had had a succession of high priests throughout their history. These were men called by God to be priests and they had “acted on behalf of men in relation to God” (Heb. 5:1). They had their weaknesses, which led them into sin and thus they could sympathize with the plight of their fellow men. But there is now a better high priest, Jesus Christ. He also was appointed by God and He also suffered. He did not sin, however, and thus His priesthood is more effective.
Starting at Hebrews 5:1
1 For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. 3 Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people. 4 And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was. 5 So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; 6 as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” 7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. 8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. 9 And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, 10 being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.
Today we want to focus on vv. 7-10 and here we can see how Jesus is perfectly suited to sympathize with our weakness. His appointment to the superior high priesthood is not being conferred merely because of His special relationship with God as Son, but He also receives it by taking the path of suffering, obedience and endurance (just like they would receive their full salvation, that is glorification, through enduring suffering).
The phrase “in the days of his flesh” makes an overt reference to Jesus’ incarnation in general (a short, but important interlude between eternity past and eternity future), but the rest of vv. 7-8 focus on the more specific moments of Gethsemane and the cross.
We saw in vv. 1 and 3 that the Israelite high priests “offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” and “is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins” while here Jesus “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death.”
This possibly refers both to Jesus’ prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane that this cup of suffering pass from him and also his cries from the cross. Both point out that obedience to God’s will in this case brought extreme suffering.
Like us, when going through deep trials, Jesus found it necessary to pray. Like us, Jesus needed His Father’s help. He was entirely dependent upon the sustaining presence and strength of His Father.
Jesus has never failed to engage human misery with a compassionate heart and action. Philip Hughes writes,
“But now in the Garden the moment has come, in his self-identification with mankind, to plumb human depravity and fallenness to its very depths as he prepares, in all his innocence and purity, to submit himself in the place of sinners to the fierceness of God’s wrath against the sins of men. This meant an experience incomparable in the horror of its torment, from which his whole being shrank instinctively but which was inescapable if the purpose of his coming was to be achieved” (Philip Edgecumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 182).
Mark tells us Jesus was “greatly distressed” (Mark 14:33). The idea here is that of terrified human surprise. As he considered the cup he must drink, he was astonished with horror.
Jesus knew that what He was facing was not merely an excruciatingly painful death, but also judgment for sins—the wrath of a thrice Holy God against sin—our sins, but laid upon him—which is to experience the “second death” (Rev. 20:4; Heb. 9:27), the disintegrating experience of utter separation from God.
It is clear from His own words that He dreaded the bitter “cup” He was about to drink (Mt 26:39). That cup was the wrath of God against all sinners. To drink it meant spiritual death, i.e., separation from God. For Jesus, Who knew no sin, to become as the ONLY sinner in the world and endure God’s wrath for that sin, was something from which He cringed in horror. We can’t fathom what it must be like for God to lay the “iniquity of us all,” on someone Who was holy. We must see Him as a man, appalled by what was ahead of Him. The very thought of separation from God must have seemed too much for Him to bear–yet He surrendered. (C. S. Lovett, Lovett’s Lights on Hebrews, 114)
The dread with which he approached the cross is explained, as Calvin says, by the fact that in the death that awaited him “he saw the curse of God and the necessity to wrestle with the sum total of human guilt and with the very powers of darkness themselves.”
Mark also tells us that Jesus said, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Mark 14:34), for his sorrow was so deep, it threatened death to his human body. Mark takes us even deeper into the terror-filled mystery, telling us: “And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will’” (Mark 14:35, 36). The inner circle of disciples saw Jesus’ body fall prostrate to the ground. There he prayed repeatedly. Our text in Hebrews gives us even more light, for it mentions “loud cries.”
How can Jesus sympathize with the pain and suffering and heartache that we go through? Because He has been there. He knows what it is like. In fact, He knows the heights of physical pain as well as the depths of emotional distress. He knows the very horrors of hell.
Amazingly (in the light of redemptive history), he was repeatedly asking that if possible the “hour” and the “cup” (metaphors for his death) might be avoided! How could he desire something contrary to the Father’s will? The answer is: Jesus was truly God and truly man. As a man he had a human will and voluntarily limited his knowledge. His prayer was not to do something other than the Father’s will, but he did say in prayer that if there were a possibility of fulfilling his messianic mission without the cross, he would opt for that. As a man Christ cried for escape, but as a man he desired the Father’s will even more.
John Calvin quotes Cyril of Alexandria as saying: “You see that death was not voluntary for Christ as far as the flesh was concerned, but it was voluntary, because by it, according to the will of the Father, salvation and life were given to all men” (John Calvin, A Harmony of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke and the Epistles of James and Jude , vol. 3, trans. A. W. Morrison (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975), p. 515).
The ”loud cries and tears” which accompanied Christ’s supplication are to be understood, then, in relation to the indescribable darkness of the horror that he, our High Priest, was to pass through as, on the cross, he bore not only the defilement and guilt of the world’s sin but also its judgment. At Gethsemane and Calvary we see him enduring our hell so that we might be set free to enter into his heaven (Philip Edgecumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 183).
Matthew Henry notes: “”The prayers and supplications that Christ offered up were joined with strong cries and tears, herein setting us an example. How many dry prayers, how few wet ones, do we offer up to God!” (Matthew Henry, p. 1951).
These prayers with tears were addressed to the Father, described here as “him who was able to save him from death,” which could mean either that the Father would keep him from dying on the cross or raise him from the dead, so that death could not forever hold him. As a man, he probably preferred the former. By doing God’s will, Christ was “saved from death” by rising again after three days.
Our text here in Hebrews tells us “he was heard because of his reverence” (v. 7b). His reverence for the Father determined that his humanity would do nothing but please the Father. His prayer was, of course, answered, for though his body died, he was saved out of death—and so the Father’s will was done. His prayer was not to escape the Father’s will, but to fully accept it. It seems unlikely that Jesus was actually asking to be spared from dying. Just a week earlier he had said it was for this very purpose that He had come (John 12:27).
And in doing it this way, as we’ll see in v. 9, Jesus “became the source of eternal salvation” for those who put their faith in him.
This reminds us that sometimes God’s “hears” our prayers but does not do what we think He should; rather He has something greater in mind. God did hear the prayers of His Son, and delivered him through death to life.
The Father attended to His Son’s cries because of Jesus’ heart posture of complete abandonment to the Father’s will. His reverence for the Father determined that His humanity would do nothing but please His Father.
Richard Foster, in his book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, begins his chapter on “The Prayer of Relinquishment” with an analogy between human and spiritual development:
As we are learning to pray we discover an interesting progression. In the beginning our will is in struggle with God’s will. We beg. We pout. We expect God to perform like a magician or shower us with blessings like Father Christmas. We major in instant solutions and manipulative powers.
As difficult as this time of struggle is, we must never desire it or try to avoid it. It is an essential part of our growing and deepening in things spiritual. To be sure, it is an inferior stage, but only in the sense that a child is at an inferior stage to that of an adult. The adult can reason better and carry heavier loads because both brain and brawn are more fully developed, but the child is doing exactly what we would expect at that age. So it is in the life of the spirit.
In time, however, we begin to enter into a grace-filled releasing of our will and flowing into the will of the Father. It is the Prayer of Relinquishment that moves us from the struggling to the releasing.
It might be expected that because He was God’s Son, God’s one and only beloved Son, that he would be exempt from suffering. But no, to become our perfect high priest, He had to experientially learn obedience through suffering. Although Christ has a unique standing with God as His Son, this did not keep him from having to go through a “learning experience” in which he perfectly, or completely, learned the role He must play as the Captain of our salvation (Heb. 2:10).
The word “Son” here has no definite article. But that doesn’t mean that “the Son,” Jesus Christ, is not in view here. Rather, the lack of the definite article means this word “Son” is being used in a qualitative sense. “Sons…learn…” That just the nature of growing up and becoming mature.
The structure of the passage, “Although He was a Son, he learned…” expresses what grammarians label a “contraexpectation,” of what one might call a “sweet surprise.” In other words, the dynamics of the situation was not what you would expect. Unlike an ancient prince on whom positions were bestowed simply by being born into the royal lineage, this divine Son was called to walk a path of obedience through suffering.
The “Son” being the Son of God, was under no necessity to learn obedience through suffering, but He did. He chose this path (Phil. 2:8; Heb. 12:2).
Verse 8 says, “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered.” This does not mean he moved from being disobedient to being obedient. It means he moved from being untested to being tested and proven. He moved from obeying without any suffering to obeying through unspeakable suffering. It means that the gold of his natural purity was put in the crucible and melted down with white-hot pain, so that he could learn from experience what suffering is and prove that his purity would persevere.
When the author says that Christ “learned obedience” and was “made perfect,” he is not suggesting to his readers that the Son was less than divine, less than God, less that omniscient, omnipotent, and certainly not that He had been disobedient before and had learned to be obedient. It is not that He was morally flawed in any way. Remember, in Heb. 4:15 he told us Christ was “yet without sin.” Rather, Jesus’ calling involved walking obediently all the way to the end of the path to which the Father had appointed him—to the cross. That he “learned obedience” simply means that the son arrived “at a new stage of experience,” having passed through the school of suffering. Perfection refers to the Son’s having “graduated” from that school, accomplishing the mission and making it to the end of that passion.
Remember C. S. Lewis’ comment about how it is the “good man,” not the “bad man” who knows the full extent of what it means to be tempted, because he endured to the full extent and didn’t give in early like we normally do in our temptations.
Even as God the Son, and as such perfect in one sense, Jesus gained something through His sufferings, namely, experiential knowledge of what being a human involves. Griffith Thomas remarks, “”Innocence is life untested, but virtue is innocence tested and triumphant” (W. H. Griffith Thomas, A Devotional Commentary, p. 64).
The “perfecting” in view has to do with Christ’s vocation, his calling to be the savior of his people. It was a process by which he was shown to be fully equipped and qualified for his office.
We need to understand Jesus’ learning and becoming “perfect” in the context not of moral deficiency but as the completion of a task. He finished the task and drank the full measure of the experience that was needed in order to make a complete sacrifice for our sins.
There is a link here between Jesus’ prayers in the midst of his suffering and the prayer of the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 50:4-9.
5 The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious; I turned not backward. 6 I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting.
What did the servant learn? He learned how to sympathize deeply with us in our suffering.
Philip Hughes describes it like this: “His perfection consisted in the retention of his integrity, in the face of every kind of assault on his integrity, and thereby the establishment of his integrity. Had he failed at any point, his integrity would have been impaired and his perfection lost, with the consequence that he would have been disqualified to act as mediator and redeemer” (P. E. Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 188).
Jesus succeeded where Adam failed and cried “It is finished” from the cross (John 19:30).
John MacArthur says, “Christ did not need to learn any new information when He came to earth. He was omniscient, all-knowing. But He chose to participate in man’s feelings personally as that He could be sympathetic, all-feeling.”
Verses 9 and 10 proclaim the happy result of the Son’s reaching this perfection, accomplishing this goal. He became the “source of eternal salvation.” This affirmation links the perfecting process closely to the cross, where our great high priest offered up himself as the sacrifice for our sin. His blood opens the door to our salvation.
9 And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, 10 being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.
As an eternal high priest, He could offer eternal salvation. His offering differed from that of the high priests. First, He did not have to offer a sacrifice to atone for his own sins. He had none. Second, his sacrifice was once-and-for-all. He did not have to offer it year after year. Third, this offering was Himself.
Back in chapter 2, verse 10, our author had said:
10 For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.
The obedience that is being referenced here is the obedience of faith, responded to the Spirit and the gospel call with an obedient trusting in Jesus Christ.
F. F. Bruce comments: “There is something appropriate in the fact that the salvation which was procured by the obedience of the Redeemer should be made available to the obedience of the redeemed.” (The Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 133).
“Jesus didn’t waver, neither should you,” the author of Hebrews is telling his audience.
Prolonged obedience is proof of saving faith.
Like Jesus, believers often learn obedience through their suffering (see 12:2-11). This example from Christ encouraged the readers to remain firm and not drift away from the faith in times of suffering. Just as Christ was perfected through his suffering, so Christians will be, too. (Bruce Barton, Life Application Bible Commentary: Hebrews, 68)