The writer uses this word three times in connection with the Lord Jesus. He asserts that Jesus was perfected in Gethsemane (5:9), on the cross (2:9-10) and when he rose from the grave (7:28).
The idea that Jesus was ‘perfected’ by these events cannot mean that they somehow removed defects in his character. Let us be clear — there were no flaws in Jesus of any kind.
Hebrews does not use the word to imply that Jesus was imperfect but rather that in going through the experiences of Gethsemane, the cross and the resurrection, he comprehensively fulfilled the work of salvation and became the ‘perfect’ or ‘complete’ Saviour.
Consider first how Jesus was ‘perfected’ in the Garden of Gethsemane. This is where Jesus went with his disciples after having supper together. There Jesus prayed in deep agony of soul while his disciples slept. And there Jesus was seized when Judas betrayed him with a kiss.
But the deeper significance of Gethsemane lies in this perfecting of Jesus. The writer of Hebrews makes his statement when discussing how the Lord Jesus came to serve as the High Priest for his people (4:14,15; 5:1,5,10).
The office of High Priest reminds us of the holiness of God and the sinfulness of mankind. It reminds us that sinners cannot be at peace with God or finally enter his presence as they are. Atonement must first be made for their sins.
It was the task of the High Priest to make atonement for the sins of his people by offering an acceptable sacrifice to God.
However, to serve as High Priest a person had to have certain qualifications. He had to be properly appointed — he could not just take up this office on his own (v.4). He had to offer the sacrifices appointed by God (v.1). And he had to truly represent his people (v.1).
To truly represent his people, the High Priest had to be one of them. He had to partake of human nature himself so as to have a bond, a sympathy, with those he was representing.
The Lord Jesus Christ had already been ‘made man’. But in Gethsemane he descended, as it were, the steep slope of complete identification with those he came to save. There he began to feel the pangs of the judgement that depravity deserved. There he began to experience the reality of God-forsakenness.
And there, in his full identification with us, he cried out — as any of the doomed would do — ‘let this cup pass!’
The author of Hebrews makes all this clear in these words: ‘For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathise with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin’ (4:15).
Jesus’ humanity was a real humanity, and in that humanity he truly felt the anguish and pain of the cross. It was that humanity that shrank from the cross and longed to have it removed.
The distinction we must make is between the two natures of Christ. He was fully God and fully man. We can say, therefore, that Jesus embraced the cross in his divine nature while shrinking from it in his human nature.
In Gethsemane Jesus shrank from the prospect of being separated from God as he bore his wrath against sin. In his spirit he was ready and willing to carry out the plan of redemption. But his flesh revolted at the thought of it.
We know from our own experience that it is possible to embrace something with the mind or spirit while shrinking from it with our flesh. This may happen, for example, when we face surgery or even a dental appointment.
But this was no mere surgery that Jesus was facing! It was the wrath of God against the sins of those he had given to the Son. We can well understand Jesus’ human nature shrinking from that.
If the ‘perfecting’ of Jesus in Gethsemane had to do with his complete identification with sinners, it had nothing at all to do with Jesus suddenly being unwilling to go to the cross — something he and the Father had planned before the world began.
When Jesus died on the cross, it was not as the reluctant Son of a mean, unbending Father. That is, nevertheless, how many -understand Gethsemane. They read the Gospel accounts of Jesus praying there. Then they read in Hebrews that Jesus cried out to the God who was ‘able to save him from death’ (v.7). And they draw the conclusion that Jesus suddenly got cold feet.
Are these Scriptures telling us that Jesus’ work of redemption was sullied with reluctance and grudging obedience? I reject the ‘cold feet’ view and urge you to do the same.
My reason is very simple — it is inconceivable that the Lord Jesus Christ, having exhibited nothing but steadfast determination regarding the cross, should at the very last-moment waver and make a frantic last-ditch effort to avoid it.
Earlier that evening, Jesus said, ‘the ruler of this world is coming and he has nothing in me’ (John 14:30). It insults Christ to suggest that in Gethsemane Satan found ‘something in him’ after all — unwillingness to complete his saving work!
Our Lord’s experience in the Garden of Gethsemane is of one piece with the rest of his life and ministry. It was not a desperate last-minute attempt to persuade the Father to remove the cross.
He was, rather, fulfilling a fundamental requirement of his mission. As our Lord emerged from Gethsemane he asserted, ‘Shall I not drink the cup which my Father has given me?’ (John 18:11).
And when he came away from it all, it was as one ‘perfected’ — one who could fully represent his people because he had fully experienced their condemnation and cried their cry.
The author captures the wonderful result of Jesus being fitted for his work as High Priest with these words: ‘And having been perfected, he became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey him’ (v.9).
Imagine it — eternal salvation! By nature we are destined for eternal wrath and destruction (Ephesians 2:1-3; 2 Thessalonians 1:9). But Jesus has reversed the sentence of death for all who believe — by taking up his office of High Priest and humbly submitting to each of its requirements. What a price Jesus paid for our salvation, and how grateful we should be!
But what Jesus did as High Priest counts only for ‘all who obey him’. Have you obeyed? Have you recognised your sinful condition and your inability to do anything about it? Have you turned to Christ, receiving him and his redeeming death upon the cross as your only hope for eternal -salvation?