When it came to being our high priest, Jesus wasn’t born ready. He was born as a helpless infant who needed to grow in wisdom and stature. True, the incarnation was absolutely necessary for us to be saved, since our high priest needed to be human to represent us. But sinners like us don’t just need saving; we also need sympathy. And sympathy requires experience that Baby Jesus (or Teenage Jesus, for that matter) didn’t yet have.
So I repeat, when it came to being our high priest, Jesus wasn’t born ready. He had to be put through a rigorous high-priest training school. This may sound a bit shocking, but it’s the clear teaching of Hebrews 5:7–10. These verses explain how Jesus was trained on earth for the job he’s now doing in heaven. He “learned obedience” and so became able to sympathize with us (Heb. 4:15; 5:8). Only at the end of this training was he “made perfect . . . [and] designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 5:9–10).
When it came to being our high priest, Jesus wasn’t born ready.
That’s a lot to unpack. But it’s vital if we’re going to appreciate what Jesus went through in order to be our high priest.
Setting the Stage
Verse 7 sets the timeframe for this training school: “in the days of his flesh” or “during his life on earth.” Not during the days of his pre-incarnate glory (Heb. 1:2), nor in the days of his post-resurrection “indestructible life” (Heb. 7:16). But during the days we read about in the four Gospels—this was when Jesus was trained, tested, and perfected.
For Jesus to become a sympathetic high priest, it was first necessary for him to become like us. Stated plainly, “he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest” (Heb. 2:17). This is one of the reasons the incarnation was necessary—not just so that he could die for us, but so that he could relate to us from the inside.
The manger wouldn’t have mattered without the cross, but neither would the cross have been possible without the manger. First things first: God became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:1, 14; Heb. 2:14). That may have only been kindergarten in the training school, but it had to start there.
When Training Became Grueling
Christians sometimes assume that because Jesus was God’s Son, it must’ve been easy for him to live a sinless life. But Hebrews 5:7 doesn’t sound easy. It sounds grueling: “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.”
I call it “grueling” not because Jesus had a sinful nature to contend with. He didn’t. When the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, he ensured that Jesus was completely holy, unstained, and separate from sinners (Luke 1:35; Heb. 7:26). There was no place in Jesus for Satan to gain a foothold (John 14:30). He knew no sin—whether original or actual, outward or inward. So I want to be clear that Jesus’s high-priest training did not involve putting sin to death.
Jesus’s high-priest training did not involve putting sin to death [but] learning to submit his natural desires to his Father’s will.
That said, we must be careful not to fall into the opposite ditch of making his temptations a charade. Jesus had no sinful nature to mortify, but did have a human nature with natural human desires (e.g., hunger) that Satan preyed upon (e.g., in the wilderness).
This is what his training involved: learning to submit his natural desires to his Father’s will, even when it meant pain and hardship and self-denial—as it often did. And this is why he prayed with loud cries and tears. It wasn’t an act—he wasn’t faking. He prayed with loud cries and tears because the prospect of drinking the bitter cup put a terrible strain on his human nature.
Further, for this holiest man who ever lived, the prospect of sinning would’ve been more loathsome than sinners like us could ever imagine. It’s we who can’t understand his temptations. As C. S. Lewis noted, Christ, as “the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means.”
Obedience through Suffering
In two surprising phrases, the author speaks of Christ “learning obedience” and “being made perfect” (Heb. 5:9). Both phrases speak of development our Lord underwent in order to prepare for the job.
Again, this was not development from disobedience to obedience through repentance, but from immaturity to maturity through testing. Even as the sinless Son of God, he still had to grow in wisdom (according to his human nature), and no doubt the Father “knew his frame” and matched the difficulty of the tests with his Son’s degree of maturity. Gethsemane didn’t happen in kindergarten.
Gethsemane didn’t happen in kindergarten.
Instead, his training likely began with tests like honoring his father and mother even when they didn’t understand his mission as well as he did (Luke 2:48–51). But it was faithfulness in these smaller matters that prepared him for the greater tests. So by the time Gethsemane arrived, he’d learned obedience so well that he could say, “Not my will, but yours be done,” even when it meant drinking the bitter cup of God’s curse.
Ready for the Job
Enduring the cross was doubtless the hardest test of all (Phil. 2:8). But Jesus passed. And he passed the same way he’d passed every other test—through reverent, faith-filled prayer (Heb. 5:7). He prayed and “he was heard.”
God didn’t remove the bitter cup, but he did enable Jesus to drink it. And on the third day he “saved him from death” by raising him up and declaring: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you! You are now a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek” (Acts 13:33; Heb. 5:10).
The words “It is finished” were an announcement that his training was complete. He’d learned everything he needed to be a merciful and faithful high priest for you and me. He’d finally been “made perfect” (Heb. 5:9). And now, having been raised to an indestructible life, he has “passed through the heavens” and sits on a throne of grace, where he always lives to intercede for us (Heb. 4:14; 7:25).
If you wonder whether Jesus is able to sympathize with you in your weakness, don’t. This is what he trained for. Jesus wasn’t born ready to be our high priest, but by the grace of God he died ready (Heb. 2:9).