The Blessings of Obedience Learned Through Suffering
“Although he was a son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered; and after he had been made perfect he became responsible for everlasting salvation to all those obeying him.”—Heb. 5:8, 9.
1. Why does endurance often have a great appeal, and what does it involve?
A SUPERHUMAN test of endurance! Such a headline in a newspaper would immediately attract attention, not only because it promises something sensational, but because many people are interested in the quality of endurance. They would read what was under that headline with the feeling of being involved, wondering how they would fare under such a test. Many, in fact, willingly undergo severe tests of endurance, such as in mountaineering, or long-distance running, swimming, and so forth. These feats not only demand a nonstop continuance in a certain activity, but also call for constant firmness under pressure, hardship or suffering, without being overcome or giving way. That is what endurance means. It is rightly looked on as a sterling quality, requiring patience, perseverance, strength of devotion, fortitude and courage. Though in the above instances the prompting motive may include competition and pride in the sense of achievement, this is not always so. Nursing someone through a long, painful illness, with no hope of recovery, or living for years with someone who has turned sour or become dissolute, these and other similar circumstances all call for endurance, but with no thought of acclaim and often taken for granted and passed by unnoticed.
2. To what special example of endurance does the Bible invite our attention?
2 Right now we are inviting your interest in a unique case of successfully passing a superhuman test of endurance. This is no exaggeration. We can also say, on the authority of God’s Word, that you are invited to become involved. In truth, we are all involved, every one of us. This case is unique, not due to its principles differing from those of other tests, but because of certain outstanding features and circumstances that are well worthy of consideration. As you may have expected, this case concerns God’s only-begotten Son, Christ Jesus. Of him it is recorded: “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered; and after he had been made perfect he became responsible for everlasting salvation to all those obeying him.” (Heb. 5:8, 9) However, before going into detail as to how and why he was tested, let us, for our encouragement, briefly note some of the blessings he gained as a direct result of all that he endured.
3. Briefly, what blessings thereby gained by Jesus can be mentioned?
3 To begin with, Paul immediately goes on to mention three of these blessings: (1) Jesus was thereby “made perfect” in a special sense, (2) he was authorized to become “responsible for everlasting salvation to all those obeying him,” and (3) he qualified to be a “high priest according to the manner of Melchizedek.” (Heb. 5:9, 10) This last one of course means that (4) Jesus also qualified to be a “king,” like Melchizedek. To these we can add that (5) Jesus is appointed “mediator of a new covenant,” and also (6) enjoys supreme exaltation to the “right hand of the throne of God.” Lastly, (7) he was made head “as a Son over” God’s house of sons. We should keep these things in mind as we look at what might seem to be the dark side of the picture. That is what Jesus did, as we read: “For the joy that was set before him he endured a torture stake.”—Heb. 7:1, 2; 9:15; 3:6; 12:2.
4 Turning our attention again to the apostle’s inspired statement at Hebrews 5:8, 9, we note he uses expressions that at first sight seem strange and difficult to understand. Since Jesus was God’s perfect Son sent down from heaven, “loyal, guileless, undefiled, separated from the sinners,” how can it be said that he “learned obedience from the things he suffered,” and how was he thereby “made perfect”? (Heb. 7:26) Why was it necessary in his case? Was he not always obedient and always perfect? To aid in getting the right viewpoint and appreciation on these leading questions, we want to look at the whole matter through Paul’s eyes, as it were, remembering that he was particularly blessed with Jehovah’s spirit.
5. What is Paul’s main theme in Hebrews, chapter 1, and how is it supported?
5 It is most interesting to see how Paul develops his argument in writing to the Hebrew Christians, also to note his frequent mention of angels in the earlier part. His main theme, to begin with, is the unique exaltation of God’s Son to the highest position, made to be the “reflection of his [God’s] glory and the exact representation of his very being . . . and after he had made a purification for our sins he sat down on the right hand of the Majesty in lofty places. So he has become better than the angels.” (Heb. 1:3, 4) In the long list of quotations that follows from the Hebrew Scriptures, showing Christ’s superior position over the angels, the basic reason for this is clearly stated when Paul quotes from Psalm 45:7: “You [the Son] loved righteousness, and you hated lawlessness. That is why God, your God, anointed you with the oil of exultation more than your partners [the kings of Israel].” (Heb. 1:9) We should take to heart that fundamental principle. If we follow it under whatever test we become involved in, we too can be sure of a successful outcome because of having Jehovah’s approval and blessing.
6 With Jesus’ lofty exaltation in mind, we can better appreciate the force of Paul’s words when he says: “That is why it is necessary for us to pay more than the usual attention” to a message of a “salvation of such greatness in that it began to be spoken through our Lord,” and not through angels. If we neglect the opportunity for salvation held out by Jesus Christ, whether to a heavenly or an earthly hope in his kingdom, then “how shall we escape” the dire “retribution in harmony with justice,” because of spurning a unique provision of such undeserved kindness? (Heb. 2:1-4) Then Paul enlarges on this, quoting from Psalm 8, showing that in God’s kingdom it is his purpose to ‘subject all things’ without exception, “not to angels,” but under the feet of the “son of man,” who is Jesus. Interestingly, however, in the outworking of this purpose, Jesus was for a time made “a little lower than angels” when he came to earth. To what end and with what result? Note the grand answer, that Jesus is now “crowned with glory and honor for having suffered death, that he by God’s undeserved kindness might taste death for every man.” (Heb. 2:5-9) This argues that the provision made for salvation is so comprehensive that no member of the human family is left out. True, it is not automatic or forced on anyone, but anyone failing to get the benefit thereof has only himself to blame. The provision covers “every man.” Do you not appreciate this provision? Do you not feel involved? How careful we should be to “never drift away,” or develop a “wicked heart lacking faith by drawing away from the living God.”—Heb. 2:1; 3:12.
7. How can we identify the “many sons” mentioned at Hebrews 2:10?
7 So far so good. We have no difficulty in acknowledging that God’s beloved Son was worthy to be raised to such an exalted position. However, what about Paul’s next statement, an important one, that “it was fitting . . . in bringing many sons to glory, to make the Chief Agent of their salvation perfect through sufferings”? (Heb. 2:10) Who are these “many sons”? Might they be some of the holy angels deserving of special honor? To the contrary, the clue to the answer is seen in Heb 2 verse 16, where we read: “For he [Jesus] is really not assisting angels at all, but he is assisting Abraham’s seed.” Ah! there we have it, “Abraham’s seed.” To identify this class, we only have to refer to the apostle’s explanation at Galatians 3:16, 26, 29, where, after stating that the promise was not to many seeds, but only one, “‘and to your seed,’ who is Christ,” he then later says: “You are all, in fact, sons of God through your faith in Christ Jesus. . . . Moreover, if you belong to Christ, you are really Abraham’s seed, heirs with reference to a promise.” Thus we learn that, while Abraham’s seed is primarily Jesus Christ, in the enlarged fulfillment it includes the Christian congregation, the “little flock” with the heavenly hope. (Luke 12:32) These share with their Head to a large extent in the promised special blessings of obedience learned through suffering. Even though you may not be of this limited number, you are still involved if you are a sheeplike person, for, as we shall see, all of Jehovah’s sheep in this “time of the end” take a similar course with a similar motive, and all alike are required to learn obedience through suffering, especially in these “critical times hard to deal with.”—2 Tim. 3:1.
THE CHIEF AGENT MADE PERFECT THROUGH SUFFERING
8. (a) What provision was first made by Jesus as high priest, and why? (b) Is there need for further aid, and how has it been provided?
8 In order to appreciate why it was fitting to make the “Chief Agent . . . perfect through sufferings,” and how this was done, we propose to link together the various expressions found in the context of this passage that bear directly on this question. First, we will consider Hebrews 2:17, 18. Here it is explained that Jesus “was obliged to become like his ‘brothers’ in all respects, that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, in order to offer propitiatory sacrifice for the sins of the people.” This had to be done first in order to provide a satisfactory basis on which these “many sons” of God, these “brothers” of Jesus, could be acceptable and given a righteous standing in God’s sight. But this is not all. These, like all Jehovah’s “sheep,” are taken from the human family, beset by many imperfections and infirmities, and need further help from their merciful high priest, as we next read: “For in that he himself has suffered when being put to the test, he is able to come to the aid of those who are [also] being put to the test.” Now we can begin to see one of the main reasons for all the suffering that Jesus endured right here on earth. Because of this, not only can he provide aid from a distant point, as it were, but he is ‘able to come to our aid’ when we are in need. Though highly exalted to God’s right hand, he is not remote, impersonal. What a close relationship is thus implied, and how comforting!
9. (a) In what way and to what extent can Jesus sympathize with our weaknesses? (b) What benefits do we thereby gain?
9 Next, consider Hebrews 4:15, 16, where we find further comfort and encouragement. Paul tells us that “we have as high priest, not one who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tested in all respects like ourselves, but without sin.” How close this brings our high priest to us! He can sympathize not only with our limitations, but even with our weaknesses. He knows what it is to feel the many pressures that cause one either to stumble or to swerve from the course of perfect obedience, the pressure coming either due to opposition causing fear, or due to enticement causing wrong desire. He was “tested in all respects like ourselves,” though for his part he never stumbled or swerved in the slightest degree. What a comfort to know that “he is able to deal moderately with the ignorant and erring ones,” like the high priests of Israel, though not because he ever needed to make an offering for his own sins, as they did. (Heb. 5:2, 3) This makes us feel as Paul next wrote: “Let us, therefore, approach with freeness of speech to the throne of undeserved kindness, that we may obtain mercy and find undeserved kindness for help at the right time.” Both the statements at Hebrews 2:18 and Heb 4:16 are true, each from its own viewpoint. On the one hand, our high priest is ready to come to our rescue and provide aid when we are being put to the test. On the other hand, we can always feel free to approach God’s throne of undeserved kindness with absolute confidence, assured of receiving kindly help just at the right time.
10. (a) How do we know Jesus’ sufferings were intensely real? (b) What objective was gained because of passing the supreme test?
10 Having traced the outline of Paul’s argument thus far, and appreciating some of its fine points, let us look once more at his words recorded at Hebrews 5:8-10. Just previously he reminds us that Jesus’ sufferings were intensely real, that he “offered up supplications and also petitions to the one [God] who was able to save him out of death, with strong outcries and tears.” Yes, it was indeed a superhuman test. Then comes the key statement: “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered; and after he had been made perfect he became responsible for everlasting salvation to all those obeying him.” Continuing, the first reason is given for this trialsome course: “Because he has been specifically called by God a high priest according to the manner of Melchizedek.” He was now fully qualified.
11. How is obedience stressed at Hebrews 5:9, also when Jesus gave his commission to his followers?
11 Notice the emphasis laid on obedience. Not only did Jesus have to learn and prove his own obedience, but he is responsible for salvation only “to all those obeying him,” not just trusting him. Only those learning obedience under test, involving suffering, gain the blessing of obedience, eternal salvation. Notice further how Jesus strongly supported this when fully qualified, after his resurrection. In giving his commission to his followers, he started by saying: “All authority has been given me in heaven and on the earth,” thereby having the right to command obedience. Then he said: “Go therefore and make disciples . . . teaching them to observe [to keep and obey] all the things I have commanded you.” He did not request or suggest; he commanded. Obedience to him cannot be sidestepped, either for ourselves or for those we are privileged to teach, though this must be balanced, as in our high priest, with mercy and the other fruits of the spirit. Rather than for us to feel frightened about this, it really proves to be a grand support, for Jesus added: “And, look! I am with you [backing you up with all authority] all the days until the conclusion of the system of things.” What more could we want?—Matt. 28:18-20.
12. (a) What fundamental principle highlights the importance of obedience? (b) In the light of God’s Word, how searching is the test of obedience?
12 We come now to the consideration of those leading questions: How did Jesus learn obedience? and how was he thereby made perfect? The question of obedience involves a fundamental principle, or truth, that applies, not only to Jesus and those making up Abraham’s seed, but to all God’s intelligent creatures. That great truth lies in the fact of Jehovah’s rightful and righteous universal sovereignty over all his creatures. All must prove their full recognition of this by proving obedient under whatever test Jehovah provides or allows. The first test was made in Eden. The final test comes after the thousand-year reign of Christ. (Rev. 20:7-10) In each case the Bible shows this test cannot be treated lightly, that no one can take for granted that he will succeed. The test is real, revealing the heart attitude prompting the obedience or disobedience to Jehovah’s expressed will. Are you willing to accede to Jehovah’s sovereignty over you, without qualification, over your heart and mind and your whole life?
13. In what two senses is perfection spoken of in the Bible and in everyday use?
13 Before further discussing obedience, let us consider the question of perfection. To understand this properly, we must first realize that both in the Bible and everyday speech, perfection is spoken of in two senses. (1) When we say something is perfect we sometimes mean it is entirely flawless and cannot go wrong. It is fully developed, the finished article. That would be perfection in the absolute and final sense. Primarily, this is true of Jehovah. The Bible says of him: “The Rock, perfect is his activity, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness, with whom there is no injustice; righteous and upright is he.” (Deut. 32:4) (2) Perfection, however, is often used and spoken of in a relative or limited sense, limited to a certain sphere and not going beyond that. A synthetically produced commercial diamond, for instance, is perfect for use in an electric drill, but not, please note, for an engagement ring.
14. (a) How did Eve come to miss the mark of perfection, leading to what question? (b) What special quality and ability were given man, thus magnifying God’s purpose regarding man?
14 In this connection, take the Bible example of Adam and Eve where obedience also comes into the picture. The man was perfect in a relative sense in his own sphere, perfectly fitted to exercise headship in carrying out the Creator’s purpose regarding the earth and his immediate family. The woman, in her sphere, was perfectly suited for being a mother and an ideal companion for her husband. But all too soon she went wrong. She sinned, that is, she missed the mark of perfection. How? She went beyond her God-given assignment and tried to assume her husband’s God-given quality and acted as her own head. She proved disobedient to her husband and to her Creator. Still, the age-old question crops up, How could they possibly have sinned, seemingly so quickly and easily, if they were really perfect? Well, do not forget that other marvelous quality they each enjoyed in perfection, namely, a perfectly free mind and will, the ability to think and reason things out, each along one’s own lines if one chose to do so, reaching one’s own conclusions and making one’s own decisions. They had perfect freedom of choice. In fact, if it had been that they lacked the ability to be either obedient or disobedient, having no choice, then they would have been imperfect from God’s viewpoint. Please note that God’s purpose is to have this earth filled, not just with obedient men and women, but with men and women who have passed the test as to their voluntary and deep-rooted devotion and loyalty to him in acknowledgment of his rightful sovereignty. He does not desire from any one of us an automatic, mechanical, matter-of-course or enforced worship and service. Rather, he desires a reasoned-out, willing service, springing spontaneously from a loving heart.
15. (a) How does the Bible explain the operation of sin from its inception? (b) How should freedom of choice be viewed and treasured?
15 So, then, man’s fall from perfection resulted from his bringing wrong thoughts into his mind. First Eve and then Adam of their own free choice meditated long enough on what was wrong so that it took root and motivated them to bad action. This is exactly as the Bible says: “Each one is tried by being drawn out and enticed by his own desire [that is, he chooses to make it his own desire, though, as with Eve, it may not be his own to begin with]. Then the desire, when it has become fertile, gives birth to sin.” (Jas. 1:14, 15) This principle holds true for all, whether perfect or imperfect. If we said that a perfect man could not go wrong, then we would have to say that an imperfect man could not maintain a right course, especially under pressure. Yet today we see that many imperfect creatures do stick to a right course in obeying God, even if it means suffering; whereas others deliberately pursue or abandon themselves to a wrong course. It is good to realize that the choice is set before us just as when God said to the children of Israel: “See . . . I have put life and death before you . . . and you must choose.” (Deut. 30:15, 19) Being imperfect did not stop them from choosing, did it? Getting it clear in our mind concerning perfection and obedience helps and encourages us to get the right view as to our responsibility and the privileges open to every one of us. Granted, we are imperfect, but to a large extent, even after six thousand years of sin and imperfection, we still have freedom of choice as to how we think and how we decide. This freedom of mind and will is a precious gift and carries with it a big responsibility. We should pay more than the usual attention as to how we use it.
16. (a) When on earth and before, how was Jesus perfect in a relative sense? (b) What high office was to be given him, demanding what qualities?
16 These same things apply in the case of Jesus. See how perfection in a relative or limited sense was true of him. When born here on earth, he was a perfect baby, but no more than a baby. When at the age of twelve he questioned those teachers at the temple, he was a perfect boy, but no more than a boy. (Luke 2:41-52) Similarly, in his prehuman existence, he was perfect as God’s “master worker” (Prov. 8:30), but God had in mind a much higher position for him, one demanding assured qualities in a superlative degree of proved perfection and trustworthiness and maturity. So before reaching this high office of being king and high priest, it was fitting that God’s Son should undergo the required development, the necessary training and education, the necessary disciplining and testing, in order to perfect him for his high office beyond any possibility of failure.
17. How was Jesus’ obedience crucially tested when on earth?
17 The matter of obedience also comes into the picture. True, Jesus had always been obedient before coming to earth, but his obedience had never been put to a severe test. When in conflict with spirit creatures, the ‘prince of Persia’ in Daniel’s time, also earlier with Satan himself over the body of Moses, he was not then subject to those opposers. (Dan. 10:13; Jude 9) He did not have to pay a high price for being obedient. But when he came to earth and began his ministry, his field service, it was altogether different, was it not? From Jordan to Calvary he was continually put to the test, involving much suffering. After a direct encounter with the Devil in the wilderness, there were all those hostile religious pressure groups continually at him and after him until they finally got him. Yes, he went through the mill, as we say, “with strong outcries and tears.” It was a terrible ordeal. Finally, he was crushed to death between the upper and lower millstones of those pressure groups and of Rome. However, he was not crushed or broken in spirit, or in his integrity and perfect obedience to his heavenly Father.—Matt. 4:1-11; Heb. 5:7.
18. From all that he suffered and endured, what blessings did Jesus gain for himself, and what benefits for others?
18 Jesus always had faith, but now it had the tested quality. He was always true as steel, denoting loyalty and constancy, but now it was tempered steel, tempered by fire. Thus we can more fully appreciate why it was necessary for Jesus to learn by actual experience what it meant to be obedient under extreme adversity and suffering. Primarily, it was in view of the unique position ahead of him at God’s right hand, all things being put in subjection to him. Additionally, we realize that by enduring such a course faithfully he was thereby made perfect in a much wider and deeper sense than ever before. He was now fully qualified as high priest to come to our aid and give help at the right time, thus becoming responsible for the ultimate salvation, first for the many obedient sons who are to share with him in his heavenly throne, also for the many others of humanity for whom he tasted death. These, too, must learn that “in the name of Jesus every knee should bend” in submission, because of the “superior position” kindly given by God to his faithful Son. All this, of course, is “to the glory of God the Father.”—Phil. 2:5-11.
19. How do we know that the tests were not forced on Jesus, and how was this foretold?
19 There is one more thing worthy of note regarding Jesus. The tests were not forced on him. He willingly and deliberately chose to enter the ministry, including the public exposure of all the false religion and tradition practiced in his day, knowing full well it would draw the fire of the enemy. As was foretold of his frame of mind and determination: “I had faith, for I proceeded to speak. I myself was very much afflicted.” Above all, Jesus had faith in God’s kingdom and that he would be installed as its king. On the basis of this faith he “proceeded to speak” and “bear witness to the truth” on all occasions. As a result, he was “very much afflicted.” Still, even when facing the end and he could say: “The ropes of death encircled me and the distressing circumstances of Sheol themselves found me,” he also said at the same time: “My vows I shall pay to Jehovah, yes, in front of all his people.” He was Jehovah’s foremost loyal one, and it likely was a great comfort to him at that time to recall that it was written: “Precious in the eyes of Jehovah is the death of his loyal ones.”—Ps. 116:3, 10-15; 2:6; John 18:37.
20. Besides appreciating his ministry on our behalf, from what other viewpoint should we consider Jesus and take keen interest?
20 As we have already indicated, these experiences of Jesus’ in learning obedience the hard way were not only of benefit to himself, also enabling him as high priest to minister to our benefit, but he thereby set a pattern for us to follow in certain respects. This is true of those whose hope of life is in a restored earthly paradise, besides those who have the hope of sharing with Jesus in his heavenly throne. We wish to discuss this more fully with you and invite your interest. We trust you will feel involved, but you might say, as many do, I cannot be interested from this angle. It was all right for Jesus, he was perfect. I am too conscious of my own imperfections, preventing me from going beyond just the grateful acceptance of the benefits of Jesus’ ransom sacrifice. Is that good reasoning? Is it correct thinking?