Jesus Christ, when He was here on earth as a human being, lived indeed a sinless life. He never sinned by breaking any of God’s Commandments (compare 1 John 3:4, Authorized Version). Rather, He kept perfectly all of God’s Laws. He said in John 15:10: “I have kept My Father’s commandments.”
The Biblical record is conclusive that Christ never sinned. Hebrews 4:15 tells us that Christ “was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.” He was “separate from sinners” (Hebrews 7:26); and even when He suffered, He “committed no sin” (1 Peter 2:21-22). Christ challenged His listeners to convict Him of sin (John 8:46), knowing that they would be unable to do so. He also testified of Himself that “no unrighteousness” was in Him (John 7:18).
Before Christ became a man, He had lived for all eternity as a glorified God being, in the Spirit, together with the Father (John 17:5). But when He became human, having laid aside His divine attributes (Philippians 2:5-7), He experienced for the first time what it was like to live with human nature — in this “sinful flesh” (Romans 8:3). He had to learn IN THE FLESH how to overcome sin and stay obedient to God; how to fight victoriously against the temptations of the flesh; and how to stay obedient in suffering, “to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8).
While in this sinful flesh, living with human nature, Christ learned obedience by condemning sin in His flesh (compare, again, Romans 8:3). He learned obedience to God’s will, in the face of terrible sufferings and pain, by submitting His own will to that of the Father, and by accepting and embracing the Father’s will in His life (Matthew 26:38-39).
Christ never sinned. He was always obedient to God’s Law. But as a human, He had to learn, by experience, how difficult it can be to always obey, and that sin can only be resisted successfuly through the power of God’s Holy Spirit living within us. Christ emphasized many times that He could do nothing of Himself (John 5:19); that the Father dwelling in Christ, through the Holy Spirit, was doing the works which Christ performed (John 14:10); and that Christ was not seeking His own will, but only the will of the Father (John 5:30; 6:38). Although Christ never sinned, He still had to learn obedience to God’s Law, as a human being, by the things which He suffered.
We find this insightful explanation in the NASB Study Bible which sheds light on verse 8 of Hebrews 5: “Though He was the eternal Son of God, it was necessary for Him as the incarnate Son to learn obedience–not that He was ever disobedient, but that He was called on to obey to an extent He had never before experienced. The temptations He faced were real and the battle for victory was difficult, but where Adam failed…, Jesus resisted and prevailed.”
The Broadman Bible Commentary states, in regard to Hebrews 5:8-9: “This sonship did not immunize him from the necessity of learning as every genuinely human being must learn. The deepest lessons of life are learned through anguish. The learning of Jesus was not an exception to this. Being made perfect means, not that he was not at every given moment perfect, but rather, that his moral perfection ultimately depended upon his response to each challenge presented to him. This was especially true as this challenge intensified, as his cross drew nearer and became… a grim, present reality.”
“The New Bible Commentary: Revised” adds the following thoughts: “Also by the experience of such a discipline, He, Son of God though He was, learnt the full meaning and cost of human obedience, and was thereby perfected in His human character, and in His fitness to be the cause to men of salvation eternal in quality. Men can enjoy the full benefit of his saving work only if they, too, are baptized into the same spirit, and become those who at any cost make active obedience to Christ their continual practice.”
The Nelson Study Bible explains the fact that “Jesus learned obedience,” in this way: “Jesus experienced all of what a person goes through on this earth. He knows how difficult it is to obey God completely, just as He understands the attractions of temptation ([Hebrews] 2:18). Yet He persisted in obedience, leading a sinless life (I John 3:5).”
Notice, too, how other translations render Hebrews 5:8. Moffat says: “he learned by all he suffered how to obey.” William Beck writes: “He found out from what He suffered what it means to obey.”
One of the clearest interpretations of Hebrews 5:8-9 can be found in the rendering of the Living Bible, as follows: “And even though Jesus was God’s Son, he had to learn from experience what it was like to obey, when obeying meant suffering. It was after he had proved himself perfect in this experience that Jesus became the giver of eternal salvation to all those who obey him.”
Jesus lived a perfect life without sin. Still, as a human being, He had to experience what it is like to live in this flesh, subject to temptations and sufferings, and stay obedient to God. He indeed learned obedience by the things which He suffered. We must learn obedience in the same way. For more information, please listen to our new sermon, “To Obey Is Better.”