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“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…” (Heb 5:7-9).
I stumbled over these verses as I was reading them yesterday. I was tracking with them through the first bit. While he was on earth, Jesus prayed with loud cries and tears to be delivered from death. Got it. That’s a pretty familiar scene from Gethsemane. It was the next bit that tripped me up: “…and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” “But!” I exclaimed, “But! But what does it mean ‘he was heard’? He wasn’t delivered from death!”
After some reflection and prayer, I realized there are two ways to look at these verses. The first way is to simply explain that God heard Jesus but answered “No, I won’t deliver you from death.” We are often taught (and I’ve taught it myself) that God always hears, but for his own perfect reasons that we don’t always understand, sometimes his answer is “no” or “wait.” I think this is true for Jesus in Gethsemane. Clearly God had a much bigger salvation in mind than delivering Jesus from physical death, so his answer was “No.”
But a second perspective adds a layer of depth without negating the first perspective. What if God not only heard Jesus, but “heard” actually does mean “agreed”? What if God’s answer initially seemed like a “No” but was actually a whole-hearted “Yes!” God did, indeed, deliver Jesus from death – just not until after Jesus had suffered through it. This way of understanding the answer as a “Yes!” makes more sense of the rest of the verse: “he was heard because of his reverent submission.” Why would reverent submission be set forth as the motivating cause for a “No” from God? It’s bad logic. I can’t see how the writer could have intended us to read it that way. Rather, Jesus’ reverent submission was a key reason for God’s glorious “Yes!” in raising him from the dead.
This second perspective also makes sense of the next verse: “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” Jesus was sinless. He didn’t have to learn obedience in the sense that he was sinful and had to learn not to sin. Learning obedience, therefore, must involve more than learning to follow God’s law. Is it possible Jesus’ learning obedience involved growing in the practice of obedience under more and more difficult circumstances, and in response to more and more extreme requests? Perhaps learning obedience involves growing one’s capacity for obedience in even the most difficult situations. If this is true, then Jesus’ willingness to die, his “reverent submission” even in the face of death, was the final lesson in learning obedience. His willingness proved him perfectly obedient, regardless of God’s response to his prayers. And that submission was an essential element that motivated God’s joyous “Yes!” in the resurrection.
So what does this mean for us? From The Life Model, we learn that true maturity involves something like what Hebrews seems to mean by “learning obedience.” It involves the capacity to handle more and more difficult life circumstances while continuing to live from our true hearts – the new hearts that God gives us when he redeems us, hearts that value what he values and act as he acts. In other words, as we mature, we learn to obey in the same way Jesus did, by practice. And we learn it in order to suffer well, but we also learn it by suffering well.
In his book Living With Men, Life Model guru Jim Wilder concludes that perhaps the most important skill for children to learn is to recognize what true satisfaction feels like, and to identify what satisfies. This skill allows children to do hard things and grow into adult maturity, where they can take into account the needs and desires of others rather than just their own needs and desires. For adults to then become parents, they need to learn to give without receiving anything in return. How do we gain these skills? By practicing. By facing into the things that feel like they will kill us. (Thankfully, most of the time what we fear won’t actually kill us!)
It’s amazing how many life-giving things feel like they are killing us somewhere deep inside. For a middle schooler, perhaps it involves mowing the lawn instead of going to the movies with his friends. For a high schooler, it could be admitting to a teacher that she cheated on her exam. For college student, it might be choosing not to go all the way with his girlfriend. For a young professional, perhaps it’s losing a job opportunity because she won’t make false promises. Each of these things involves a short-term “No” which in the long run is actually a “Yes!” to discovering one’s true heart, to loving others, to sharing in the true resurrection life that is a source of life to all. Each of these things involves the same kind of willingness Jesus had – the willingness to obey in suffering, the willingness to die that evokes in God a vibrant, glorious “Yes!” that brings resurrection.
In giving up short-term, temporal, physical salvation, Jesus “became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” just as he obeyed God. Another way to describe this “eternal salvation for all who obey him” is to say that the never-failing, abundant life pouring down from its source in heaven flows into and through us. God is amazingly generous, giving life at times even when we aren’t obedient – that’s what grace means, after all! But the verse says, “for all who obey him,” meaning our obedience does add to the flow of life.
Do you want that kind of life? Then a good question to ask is, “What obedience is Jesus asking of me right now in order to pour out more of the life of heaven?” Or more directly and forcefully, “What is the thing Jesus is inviting me to do (or not do) that feels like it will kill me?” Let’s be honest: it might seem like a silly little thing. For me, it is staying in conversations longer than I am comfortable – past the point where I can feel my anxiety rising, my toes starting to tap, and my mind brainstorming excuses to leave. The anxiety is rooted deep in a gut-level fear of being overwhelmed, of losing control and losing my self, which is a kind of death. But for me this feeling of death is Jesus’ invitation into obedience, and through obedience into resurrection – a new life in healthier and more loving relationships that I can’t experience without dying first. Thankfully, God’s promise is that this new life is part of his “eternal salvation” through Christ, a life overflowing with the vitality of heaven and ruled by a King who because of his obedient death is alive forever and ever.
My next post, Dying WITH Jesus, is an important follow-up to this post. Read it now