What can a perfect man have to learn? He don’t need no education! And why should a sinless Savior have to suffer? Pain means punishment, right? If there’s punishment to be had, it should fall to a world drowning in its sin; and if there’s a savior to be had from an over-generous heaven, we might well expect a Deus ex machina to drop fresh from the sky, ready to save the day. After all, if one is drowning, one does not expect his rescuer to jump in and take time learning to swim. Sweating, suffering, growing into his skin and trudging through the tedium of 24 hours, same as us—this is not what we expected from our Messiah. No legend of the gods ever quite anticipated it. But this is no airy legend; this is mundane stuff. Scripture teaches that no man avoids the hours-long days of learning God’s ways. Not even a Savior.
Our very unusual Savior came to earth through very usual channels. He was born. Although proclaimed the Messiah at birth, naturally, no one expected baby Jesus to lead a revolution through the streets until he first learned to walk. “[Jesus] grew in wisdom and stature, in favor with God and man.” He grew physically, spiritually; and more mysteriously, Jesus grew in favor with God. How does a Son, who is God and is of God, already beloved and chosen by the Father, also grow in favor with this same Heavenly Father? Just as baby Jesus grew into working in his father Joseph’s stone-cutting shop, it seems he also grew into his Father’s work of world-saving. The author of Hebrews spells this out: “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…” He was named the Savior at birth, but he became our Savior by walking out the fullness of obedience to the Father’s will. Scripture says the sinless Son was perfected.
Perfect, or perfected? Everyone knows Jesus was perfect. It’s your compulsive Sunday School answer— someone shrugs, “Nobody’s perfect,” and here comes the rebuttal: “Except Jesus!” My granny, who cared not one whit for ‘religion,’ still loved to repeat, “Y’know, there was only one perfect man, and they killed him!” One perfect man—believer or not, the human ethos is aware of him. Then what does Scripture mean when it says Jesus, the perfect one, was perfected?
I imagine we have too beauty-queen-freeze-frame an image of the word “perfect.” The Bible paints a fuller—and unsettling—picture: “In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.”  Both of these forms of “perfect” used in Hebrews (here and prior) stem from the root word “teleois” in Greek, which means “complete, fully grown, brought to maturity.”  Ah—so there’s more to perfection than a pasted smile and never doing the wrong thing. To be brought to perfection, Jesus had to put in the fullness of time. Through 2pms and Tuesdays, studying Torah, laughing (or cringing) through family dinners, stone-cutting with Joseph, praying and suffering in ways not unveiled to us, he learned what obedience to the Father meant. Even the Son; even our Savior.
The sons who follow stand to be perfected, too. Bright-eyed, eager servants have to “learn” what full obedience requires. Jesus responded to a couple of upstart disciples claiming positions of honor in his kingdom: “Can you drink the cup I’m going to drink?” Of course we can, they said without blinking. We say without thinking. “You will,” Jesus sighs, seeing ahead. “But you don’t know what you’re asking.” “I’ll die for you,” Peter insisted. “You’ll deny me,” Jesus predicted. “But when you are restored…” You will come through, Peter. But you don’t yet know what your commitment is going to cost.
Saul the murderer was instantly transformed by the blinding presence of Jesus. But that doesn’t mean the newly minted Paul was perfected. God said, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” The spirit is willing, but some things the flesh don’t know til it goes. After a handful of beatings, stonings, starvings, and jailings, Paul “knew” obedience by what he suffered. It was painful, but it wasn’t punishment; he was being perfected. Saul was sincere, eager, and full of zeal. Paul was pushed by pain to great perseverance—and full of power.
There are no shortcuts in the class of Learning God. No cheating, and no schmoozing the teacher, either (did you hear what happened to his Beloved Son, the Only Begotten? And you think you’re charming?) Each day is replete with teaching moments on God’s nature and his ways; and if you’re alive, class is in session. Learning takes time; class takes sweat and effort. But when you’ve passed, you gain new respect for the teacher; and you know what no one can take from you.
Job took a Master Class in God and Suffering. Pain is unnerving, so we sift Job’s story for the sin that invited such divine displeasure (while despising Job’s cold and terrible friends for doing the same). But that’s not the story. God throws open the windows from the very beginning: he was so pleased with Job that he was bragging about him in the heavenlies! Satan challenges God over Job’s loyalty, the heavenly wager is kicked off, and Job is in the crosshairs. Because he displeased God? No—it was a setup for a showdown. God revealed himself mightily to Job, and the Accuser (and by extension, the heavenly audience) took a historic seminar in God’s supremacy. Don’t pity Job. He wasn’t criminal; he just wasn’t complete. The Job at the end of the story had seen the God he had only served at the beginning. “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.” Who could unlearn him of his God, then, to the end of his life? The headlines of Scripture’s heroes begin to echo the Savior’s: Man Pleases God; Man Suffers Greatly. But read the bottom line: Man, Perfected, Knows Father.
Earth is on her long journey of learning God. But look up and consider—what if we’re not the only ones in class? Just as God uses the heavens to teach earth his ways, God may be using earth to continually unveil himself to the spirit realm. Look at Job—was his trial only for his own greater knowing, and the generations who followed? Or are there things even heaven don’t know til God goes? Paul said the mystery of Christ and his body, the church, had been kept hidden for ages past: “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (emphasis mine)
What on earth can heaven have to learn? If any place be perfect in the knowledge of God—! But Paul says the many folds of God’s wisdom are being unfurled in heaven through Christ’s earthly church. Heaven has no Savior, but Earth does. Heaven doesn’t know forgiveness, but their native son has returned to them with holes in his hands. The eternal Beloved now has an earthly body and an earthly bride. They knew him, but they didn’t know this. Even in the unceasing praise of the Light of Heaven, who could have known the depths of his humility and the lengths of his love without the ends of the earth? Even angels long to look into these things…
Our stories of God are not hidden, or insignificant. If you are passing through a deep and desperate valley, perhaps you are not being punished. Perhaps your Savior is perfecting you in the same class he took once upon a time, learning obedience to the Father as you walk together in his Spirit. And who knows? Maybe heaven is in class, too, poring over and peering into ever new facets of the Holy One as he infuses your humanity and grows your faith. Today, your story of learning God could be on heaven’s syllabus.
Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses...
 Luke 2:52
 Hebrews 5:8-9
 Heb 2:10-11
 Acts 9:16
 Job 42:5
 Ephesians 3:9-11