Reformed Protestantism has for centuries taught that Christ’s obedience throughout the entire course of His earthly life was necessary for our salvation. Our Lord’s active keeping of God’s commandments was necessary so that Christ could be our righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30). But in addition to Jesus’ active obedience, we also need His passive obedience, His suffering the curse of God so that we could be cleansed of our sin (Rom. 3:21–26).
As we consider the passive obedience of Christ, we must remember that it does not mean that our Lord was merely a passive recipient of suffering in His death. Yes, He suffered because other men beat Him and crucified Him, but Christ was active even in this. He gave Himself over to sinful men so that He could die in our place (Mark 15:16–20). He laid down His life; no one took it from Him unwillingly (John 10:18).
All of the suffering Christ endured from birth until death falls un-der the category of passive obedience, but in particular we are talking about the suffering Jesus endured in His crucifixion when we are considering His passive obedience. Today’s passage refers to this suffering, noting that by this suffering Christ learned obedience (Heb. 5:8).
The phrase “learned obedience” is interesting and might strike us as odd. After all, Jesus is God incarnate (John 1:1–18), and certainly God does not grow in His knowledge. But remember that Jesus is also truly man and can grow in knowledge according to His human nature though not according to His divine nature. The seventeenth-century Reformed theologian John Owen comments that by “learned obedience,” the author of Hebrews means that Jesus came to understand suffering by experiencing it Himself. By walking through suffering as a man, Jesus has shared the human condition of suffering and can now help us when we suffer.
Yet in His suffering, Christ also experienced something that we will never know. Owen notes that there is something “peculiar in that obedience which the Son of God is said to learn from his own sufferings, namely, what it is for a sinless person to suffer for sinners.” In some ways, the sufferings of Christ are analogous to ours, but in other ways, they are unique to Him in His role as our Mediator. In fact, it was through obeying God and experiencing the curse of suffering that our sin deserves that Jesus was made perfect as our High Priest. By offering Himself as our atonement, Christ fulfilled His appointed task and became “the source of eternal salvation” (Heb. 5:9–10).