“Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.” (Heb. 5:8-10)
“For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.” (Heb. 7:28)
WHAT? CHRIST WAS MADE PERFECT?!!!!
That was my response when I was first made aware of those verses. In light of the fact that this Friday is Good Friday, I thought it would be good to attempt to clarify this for anyone who is wondering what it might mean. I learned this from one of my instructors, Prof. Gurney, whom I believe presented it accurately and very well. I am presenting this, however, entirely on my own, not referring to any class notes but looking into the scriptures myself, so it may or may not be identical to his view.
What Kind of “Perfect”?
The first thing to note is that this perfection has nothing to do with Jesus’ morality or sinlessness. The New Testament makes it clear that Jesus was and is sinless (2 Cor 5:21, 1 Peter 2:22, 1 John 3:5).
How, then, was he made perfect if he was already morally perfect? It my goal to argue here that Christ was made a perfect sacrifice, so that his death could be considered a perfect replacement for sinful man:
“Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (Hebrews 2:14-18, bold mine)
It is important to be very careful when looking for parallels between the Old and New Testament (more on this later). However, we are explicitly told in scripture of a very important parallel between Israel and baptism in the New Testament:
“For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert.” (1 Cor 1:1-5, bold mine)
Notice the parallel being made here. We are told that as Christians we have been baptized into Christ (Rom 6:3, Gal 3:27), and yet in this passage the Israelites were “baptized into Moses”. This sets the stage for the next point, because what is crucial to understand here is that some kind of parallel between the Old and New Testaments regarding Israel and baptism is being made.
As we see in the next verse, Christ comes into the parallel as well:
“So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.'” (Matt 2:14-15)
This controversial prophecy in Matthew is a reference to Hosea 11:1, which, if you read it in it’s entirety, seems to only be talking about Israel coming up out of Egypt. This has led many to question whether Matthew has taken a verse out of context in order to a fulfill a prophecy that was never made.
If, however, you see Christ as the ideal Israel, then this worry goes away (I realize it is possible that it is not intended to be taken this way, but this is the argument that I have found to be the most substantial). In Matthew, Jesus is being directly compared to Israel. Bear with my lengthy explanation, because this will (hopefully) make sense when I put it all together. Before I go on to the third and final point that is a base for the overall argument, keep in mind the parallel between Israel’s “baptism” in the red sea and baptism (either figuratively or literally) for Christians, and also keep in mind the parallel between Jesus and Israel made by Matthew.
The final point to note is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. If you check out Matthew 2-4, you find that Matthew has presented the parts of Jesus’ life before his ministry in quick succession, so that in the second half of chapter 2 you find Jesus has already gone to and come back from Egypt; in the short chapter 3 (16 verses), he is baptized, and beginning in chapter 4 he is tempted. At verse 12 of chapter 4, Jesus’ ministry begins. I think this is to indicate a comparison of events.
Don’t miss the order of events: 1) Jesus came up out of Egypt, 2) he was baptized, 3) he was tempted, 4) he began his ministry. Also, don’t miss Jesus’ reason for being baptized: “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15).
You now have all three points before you. Let’s put it all together!
Putting it All Together
To put it plain and simple, this is the parallel that my instructor fully fleshes out, based on the hints given:
Jesus was not a perfect sacrifice at birth (as the scriptures indicate), because, though he was and is morally perfect, he was not yet the perfect sacrifice for humanity. Figuratively, he represented Israel by coming out of Egypt and being baptized. He then entered into the desert for forty days, symbolizing Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness for forty years. After successfully completing this time, he began his ministry.
What this means is that Jesus successfully did all that Israel failed to do. He fulfilled “all righteousness” by relying fully on the Father during the temptations and his ministry. Jesus himself talks about this fulfillment:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17)
Jesus successfully lived the way Israel was supposed to live, under the law. In doing so, the Father could say that he was a valid and perfect substitute, as a fulfiller of the law, for all those who broke the law (everyone). It’s not just that he was morally perfect (for animals are morally perfect since they do not commit sin; if being morally perfect was enough, then it seems that animals or angels could pay for our sins). He also obeyed everything the Father commanded, so that he truly became one who did not deserve the punishment that the law required. The Father can therefore look at Jesus as the one who has done everything that needed to be done, so that Jesus can pass that on to us.
I feel like this is a valid and biblically supported argument. However, I am willing to admit that there is always the possibility that this is not quite what the scriptures intended to say. The many parallels I pointed out, though, give what I feel to be a strong support for what I have said, in addition to the points made in Matthew and Hebrews. Also, it explains how it was possible that Christ had to be made perfect before he was crucified.
I will most likely be adding further verses to support the final conclusion in the near future.
(all verses taken from the NIV)