A well-worn Latin proverb declares that experience is the best teacher. We see this lived out constantly in every aspect of life. Scientists purify theories as past experiments inform future steps. Athletes and musicians improve their skills as practice and training heighten abilities. Marriages strengthen as couples work together over the years through the many problems life sends their way. Experience is, indeed, a valuable mentor in life.
Yet, while the learning component of experience doesn’t surprise us as it relates to ourselves and to our relationships, the idea of experience needing to teach someone feels very different when that someone is Jesus, the Son of God. Nevertheless, the book of Hebrews asserts that Jesus learned from experience as well.
Written to Christ-followers who were suffering, the letter to the Hebrews spends much time and effort proving the superiority of Christ over—well, everything. But even with Christ’s superiority affirmed, the writer offers three important answers to the question of Jesus’s suffering as the Man of Sorrows and what that suffering accomplished (again, in addition to the rescue His cross and resurrection provide). So then, what did He learn?
He Learned Obedience:
Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered. (hebrews 5:8)
Interestingly, The Bible Knowledge Commentary says that the writer of the book of Hebrews gives us a play on words here to emphasize the connection between suffering and learning: “He learned [emathen] and He suffered [epathen].”
To the Greek hearers, the rhythm of that play on words would accentuate the importance of what was being taught, because this was more than just a clever use of language. It is a message about the experience of the Christ and why it mattered so much.
At the same time, however, this is clearly a statement that has some doctrinal challenges embedded in it. This challenge finds its roots in how you view the kenosis of Philippians 2. Writing to the church at Philippi, Paul declares that, in coming into the world, the Christ “emptied Himself” (Greek kenoo, the root of the word kenosis) or, “made Himself nothing” (v. 7).
This, then, is the focal point of the theological challenge. Of what did Jesus empty Himself when He came to the earth? Theologians offer a variety of options, including His divine attributes, His divine character, or His divine prerogatives. The debate has raged for centuries among theologians. One response is particularly helpful:
That there is an element of mystery in all this need not be denied. . . . In a real sense not fully comprehensible, the Incarnation gave the already infinitely wise and perfect Son of God the experiential acquisition of knowledge about the human condition. Suffering thus became a reality that He tasted and from it He can sympathize deeply with His followers. (The Bible Knowledge Commentary)
Even more, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews connects this learning not to some general suffering, but, in the previous verse, connects this learning specifically to the experience of Gethsemane we saw in the previous section:
In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety. (hebrews 5:7)
The New Bible Commentary describes this connection of the garden prayer to the lessons learned:
Son of God though he was, he experienced the temptation to swerve from doing the will of his Father because of the suffering involved. He needed to learn what obedience to God involved in practical terms, in the conditions of human life on earth, so that he could sympathize with those similarly tested and teach us by his own example how far God ought to be submitted to and obeyed.
Jesus learned through His experiences of suffering, resulting in an ability to sympathize with us in our suffering. This is the next focus of what Jesus learned in His incarnate experience.
He Sympathizes With Us:
In the movie Avengers: Endgame, we enter a universe where half of all the creatures in the universe have been eradicated—and those left behind have to deal with the grief of that devastation. All respond differently. Some sink into depression, some seek revenge, some plunge themselves into their work, and so on. But the bottom line is that all of them process pain and struggle differently. Personally. Singularly.
And so do we. But into our isolation steps the Man of Sorrows. When we truly feel like nobody knows the troubles we’ve seen, the writer of Hebrews asserts that, in fact, the Son of God deeply understands:
For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. (hebrews 4:15)
The key words, of course, are sympathize and tempted, and they are connected in the heart of Jesus. We’ll see the second of those words first—tempted. The base word for tempted can speak of both positive trials and negative temptations, and the context here supports both.
Jesus experienced true temptation at the hands of Satan in Matthew 4 in a time of great physical weakness. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. The writer of Hebrews makes it clear that throughout His incarnate experience the Christ was tested in “all things as we are” but without sin.
The phrase “all things” is also of critical importance because it is comprehensive. Christ in His humanity fully experienced all of the trials and temptations that come upon us as humans. When you feel nobody knows the troubles you’ve seen, to paraphrase the old spiritual, remember: Jesus has been there and experienced it all, and to the fullest level—unlike us. We usually fail early on in the process of temptation or surrender to the pressure of the trial before its full extent has been realized.
That is why Jesus can sympathize (the other key word) with us—He has been there and has not failed. As Wiersbe put it, “No trial is too great, no temptation is too strong, but that Jesus Christ can give us the mercy and grace that we need, when we need it.”
His caring is not theoretical or in the abstract. It is real, authentic, and rooted in the life the Son of God experienced as the Son of Man.
He Comes to Our Aid.
In July 1587, a group of 117 English men, women, and children landed on Roanoke Island off the coast of what would become North Carolina, one of the United States. The island was a forbidding place, and soon the settlers had exhausted their supplies. The people pleaded with their governor, John White, to return to England and bring back supplies for their survival. But despite White’s tireless efforts, delay after delay meant that the help the colonists desperately needed didn’t arrive. When White finally returned to the New World three years later, all of the settlers were gone, in what is still considered one of America’s greatest mysteries. Where they had gone, we will likely never know. Why they had gone was clear. In their moment of desperation, no one came to their aid.
Though, perhaps, not to that extremity, all of us have moments when we feel abandoned or that our cries for help are not heard. But even if no one else responds to our cries, the Man of Sorrows hears.
For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted. (hebrews 2:18)
The New Bible Commentary offers this critical application, “Only because he shared our nature, experienced human frailty and suffered when he was tempted, is he able to provide the appropriate help to those who are being tempted.”
Jesus knew what it was to be human. In John 4, we read that He was “wearied from His journey,” and so He rested at a well (v. 6). Naturally being thirsty from that journey in the hot Samarian sun, He asked a woman for a drink (v. 7). At another point in His ministry, we read that He was so exhausted He was able to sleep in the back of a boat during a violent storm (Mark 4:36–38). And from the cross He said, “I am thirsty” (John 19:28).
What kind of High Priest does that make Him for us? The two big ideas offered by the writer of Hebrews are encouraging:
This care is graphically visualized in the word translated “come to the aid.” One writer says it means, “to run to the cry of a child.” And because Jesus became human, He is well equipped to do that for us.
So, whether succumbing to a trial or falling to temptation, we have a high priest, or, as John put it, an Advocate:
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world. (1 john 2:1–2)
Now, with greater clarity, we can appreciate Isaiah’s prophetic words of the Christ and His redemptive mission:
He was despised and forsaken of men,
A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
And like one from whom men hide their face
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.
Surely our griefs He Himself bore,
And our sorrows He carried;
Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten of God, and afflicted.
Jesus was the Man of Sorrows, but it was not purposeless sorrow. As Wiersbe put it, “No matter what trials we meet, Jesus Christ is able to understand our needs and help us. We need never doubt His ability to sympathize and strengthen. It is also worth noting that sometimes God puts us through difficulties that we might better understand the needs of others, and become able to encourage them.”
Did you notice how Wiersbe turned this issue on its head just a bit? As Jesus understands us because of what He endured, we too are able to better understand others when we suffer. Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” In 2 Corinthians 1:3–7, Paul reminds us that we are to comfort others in their sufferings or failures, with the comfort we have received from our God through His Son:
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. 6 But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; 7 and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort.
How do we comfort those who are struggling in a world looking for a Man of Steel? We offer the Man of Sorrows—who knows, understands, and cares for their hurts and pains.