A Fresh Look at Obedience

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. (Hebrews 5:7-9 NRSV)

He learned obedience and was made perfect. Now this involves two terms that have confused many over the years. We generally think of Jesus as God coming in human form and starting out as perfect. After all, part of being perfect is being obedient isn't it, i.e. obeying all the rules? So intuitively it almost seems to be an oxymoron to attempt to say that Jesus learned obedience or became perfect when we assume He started out that way already. How could He become perfect? That seems to imply that He had to be imperfect before at some point in order to be made perfect.

And how could suffering teach Jesus obedience? From our way of thinking and relating to children, the idea of learning obedience through suffering often takes the form of punishments inflicted with intent to produce suffering which hopefully in turn produces enough lasting fear in the child that they will not be disobedient again. Yet if Jesus' suffering came from punishments for wrong-doing, then again we find ourselves in a conundrum of trying to fit incompatible concepts into the same mold. It simply makes no sense that Jesus would experience suffering for anything He did wrong because He was always sinless. (This is the context for Peter's commentary on this very issue.)

If we follow that track it leaves us with even more assumptions that go every which direction. It is clear that Jesus suffered throughout His life, both emotionally and physically, especially nearing the end of His life on earth. But if all that suffering never involved punishment for misdeeds, which is an untenable option, then how could all His suffering make any sense in making Him perfect?

This brings us to an emerging problem that cannot be avoided any longer – that is, the definitions that we have assumed about the words themselves. It is imperative that we challenge and/or scrap any and all assumptions about the words we use that so often carry a lot of religious and cultural baggage that must all be stripped away to allow the Bible to define its own terms. So where might we find definitions in Scripture to explain the real meaning of both obedience and the concept of being perfect?

Let me start with the term perfect. This one might actually be easier to address, for when checking with the original language it becomes more evident how we have added a great deal of baggage to this word that didn't originally come with it. Generally today when people say someone is perfect they are referring to that person's behavior. But this is just why we find it so confusing. Most Christians believe, and correctly so, that Jesus never sinned or did anything wrong regarding behavior. Peter reinforces that idea when he recalls with amazement what the whole universe witnessed in Jesus at the cross.

In fact this is what you were called to do, because Christ suffered for you and gave you an example, so you should follow in his footsteps. (FBV) Christ never committed any sin. He never spoke deceitfully. (GW) Although he was abused, he never tried to get even, (CEV) when he suffered, he threatened no retaliation, (NET) but left everything to the one who judges fairly. (GW)
He was carrying our sins when his body was put on the pole, so that once the sins were gone, we could live righteously. For, 'by his wounds you were healed.' (2001)
Christ carried our sins in his body on the cross. He did this so that we would stop living for sin and live for what is right. By his wounds you were healed. (ERV)
You were like sheep that went the wrong way. But now you have come back to the Shepherd and Protector of your lives. (ERV) (1 Peter 2:21-25)

In the original language, the word translated perfect actually is more along the line of the idea of maturity. Using the word mature in place of perfect would actually be a much better translation from the original language. And some modern translations do follow this idea more closely. See some of the alternate wordings of this passage at the end of this writing that better reveal the meaning of this term.

Peter here says that Christ gave us the example we are to follow. I think it is safe to say that Jesus matured over His short life while here on earth. And He went down with them (His parents) and came to Nazareth, and He continued in subjection to them; and His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men. (Luke 2:51-52) Jesus was perfect as He progressed through each stage of maturity, but all throughout His life He was also in the process of increasing in maturity. I believe that this process was fully completed during His final hours on the cross when the fullest revelation of God's character yet was exposed so vividly. This mature revelation of the true nature of God's character could not have happened the way it did if Jesus had not been matured through all the smaller experiences of suffering beforehand learning how to respond to all the forms of insult, violence and abuse He suffered throughout His life.

This leads me directly into an examination of the second definition. What does the word obedience actually mean in this context? Is it talking about obeying all the rules and commands and regulations like we usually think of obedience? Or are our assumptions about this word possibly the cause of much of our confusion? Let me trace this theme of obedience learned through suffering through a few verses that came to mind recently that helped open my understanding of of what I now think it really means.

Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:4-11 NRSV)

The legal approach to defining our problem with sin typically taught by most religion would insist that the way to interpret this passage would be to assume that God had ordered Jesus to die to pay off the penalty for our sins. Thus when Jesus took upon Himself the sins of the world He was simply being obedient to His Father's command. However, this view misses almost entirely the main reason for the cross and actually obscures the real issues involved in the mess we find ourselves in with sin.

A more advanced understanding of the problem of sin and God's solution to redeem us is found in what some call The Healing Model. From this perspective sin and righteousness is not about whether we have external compliance to rules and regulations or not; rather sin is a sickness of the soul and mind that unavoidably results in sinful behavior that is acted out. I think that we would all agree that sickness is a very different thing and should be addressed completely different than we normally treat crime. Breaking rules intentionally is usually seen as crimes that most people expect to have punished. Sickness on the other hand, even if it is self-induced, is usually viewed as something needing to be treated compassionately, not punished with harshness and severity.

This is where my preconceptions about obedience are starting to come under much closer scrutiny. The passage in Philippians 2 is not referring at all to Jesus keeping all the rules of God even to the point of death. There is not even a hint of that idea within this passage. But what is interesting is when you link this passage with the one from 1 Peter and you begin to see more clearly the true nature of the meaning of obedience the way Jesus revealed it to mean.

Let me just insert here that I have observed over recent years that it is never safe to rely on our assumptions as the best definitions, particularly for religious terms. Rather it is always far better to examine the way the Bible uses those terms in context to flush out the real intent of the words and discover how they fit with the underlying truth about God's character of love, that truth which is the foundation upon which everything else must rest. If any notion or definition or doctrine casts God in a bad light and infers Him to be anything less that pure agape love, then that belief or definition must be viewed with suspicion and not God. For me personally this is also helpful in this case with the word obedience.

Because the idea of obedience was almost always linked with intimidation, threats of suffering and generally rooted in the punishment/reward model of thinking, I developed a rather strong aversion to the very word itself. But because it is so central to the teachings of Scripture and I desire to experience that eternal life that comes from knowing God personally, I have struggled to find the true meaning of this word along with many others that have been so distorted and twisted in my mind. I am confident this is a far safer way to find the truth.

What I see when I examine both the passage from Philippians 2 and the one in 1 Peter 2 has much significance through many links to other passages that also reinforce what I am seeing here. The obedience that Jesus learned through suffering was not the kind of obedience we typically think of such as learning to be a good boy by being punished occasionally for being bad. No, the obedience that Jesus learned had to do with how to always respond with a disposition of total compassion whenever He was abused, insulted, accused or any other antagonistic treatment that might have come His way.

What is beginning to become clearer to me now is that obedience as defined by Jesus is really about reflecting the real truth about how God feels about us contradicting what Satan has duped us into thinking He feels about us or treats us. Obedience is about reflecting God's compassion, forgiveness, love and kindness that, according to Paul in Romans 2:4 is precisely what draws us to repentance (literally, changing our mind about God). So for Jesus to learn this kind of obedience through suffering, it only makes sense that He had to learn it through smaller trials experience in disputes and insults during His early years where He learned how to reflect God's true character through increasingly difficult confrontations. All of these smaller encounters with evil and opposition to His increasing revelations of the character of His Father were preparing Him for the climactic culmination of the glory of God as revealed on the cross that was in sharp contrast to the ugliness of evil during that same event.

At the cross I suspect Jesus was no longer necessarily learning His lessons of obedience but was then revealing the culmination, the perfection, the maturity of all of the previous training. At the cross He had been fully matured to perfectly reflect God's character under the most toxic encounter with evil. It was as if Jesus had been working on curing or perfecting a formula for an antibody to the deadly virus of sin within His own body and spirit throughout His life. Then when the full force of evil launched its most vicious assault on Him in an attempt to get Him to succumb to acting out like other fallen humans, Jesus instead allowed sin to kill Him instead of seeking to save Himself. In doing so the antibiotic to sin was fully perfected within Him so that now everyone else can be saved with it.

When this understanding is applied to all the references to sacrifice throughout Scripture, it becomes easier to see the true nature of what the idea of sacrifice might mean. The offering of Jesus as a sacrifice had nothing to do with the appeasement of an angry deity as so many have supposed and that Satan has insinuated for so long. Rather, the sacrifice of Jesus was the laying down of His own rights and even His life in order that a fuller revelation of God's true character of unconditional love and forgiveness might finally become so clear that the lying insinuations of the evil one might finally be exposed and the real truth about God's attractiveness might draw as many as possible off from the enemies enchanted ground.

What I am now seeing from these passages is this:
  • True obedience according to Jesus is choosing to humble myself in any and all circumstances.
  • Real obedience according to the example of Jesus is to not retaliate or be resentful or try to get even but in every situation to always trust my heavenly Father to be the fair One who can make everything come out right in the end.
  • Obedience according to heaven's dictionary means loving and forgiving unconditionally, just like Jesus did.

There are so many implications to this that I am feeling overwhelmed me at this point. I want to leave it here and allow these stupendous truths to soak for awhile as my heart absorbs them more deeply. I must confess though that this epiphany is making more sense for my heart than many of the things I learned over the years and is drawing me to want to see the truth even more clearly. It is also unlocking my ability to perceive the real truth expressed in John 3:16-17 that has for so long been locked in the box of tradition and cliché. I believe I am starting to see more of the true light of the real glory of God.

Father, about all I can think to say right now is, Fill me with this kind of obedience! This obedience is far more attractive than the forced kind of external conformity I have known for most of my life. Yes, this obedience may actually be far more difficult, at least apart from knowing You. But You have been teaching me for years that all true obedience flows naturally from a heart that is falling in love with Your beauty and attractiveness. So please show me more of Your glory so that my obedience will be more evident in the way I respond under duress like Jesus did. Make me a better reflection of Your love, Your compassion, Your patience, Your kindness, Your faithfulness so that others will have greater desire to come to You for healing because of what they see You doing in me. Glorify Your name in my life as You did in Jesus' life and cleanse me of all resistance to Your Spirit that continues to cause me to malfunction.
Thank-you for all these wonderful revelations that help me see more clearly Your truth and love. I praise Your name and seek to improve Your reputation with both myself and with others by the way I think about You and the way I speak of You to those around me and the way I treat others.

(ERV) This made him the perfect high priest, who provides the way for everyone who obeys him to be saved forever.
(GSNT) and when he was fully qualified, he became a source of unending salvation for all who obey him,
(Julia) And being perfected, he became to all them lending a willing ear to him the origin of eternal salvation
(JB2000) and being made perfect, he became the author of eternal saving health unto all those that hearken unto him,
(AS) Now being made perfect, He became the cause of everlasting Deliverance, to everyone listening-under Him,
Jesus, while he was here in human form, prayed and appealed with loud cries and tears to God, the one who was able to save him from death. Jesus was heard because of his respect for God. Even though he was God’s Son, Jesus learned practically the meaning of obedience through suffering. When his experience was complete, he became the source of eternal salvation to everyone who do what he says,
(Hebrews 5:7-9 FBV)

'Gave Himself' verses.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forevermore. Amen. (Galatians 1:3-5)

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. (Galatians 2:20)

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma. (Ephesians 5:1-2)
(See 1 Peter 2:23 where the sacrifice can be seen in Jesus trusting God as the only fair judge.)

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. (Ephesians 5:25-27)

For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time. (1 Timothy 2:5-6)

looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds. (Titus 2:13-14)
(Parallel this with 1 Peter 2:24)


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