The "obedience" ( ὑπακοή , hupakoḗ ) of Christ is directly mentioned but 3 times in the New Testament, although many other passages describe or allude to it: "Through the obedience of the one shall the many be made righteous" ( Romans 5:19 ); "He humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross" (Philippians 2:8 ); "Though he was a Son, yet learned obedience by the things which he suffered" (Hebrews 5:8 ). In 2 Corinthians 10:5 , the phrase signifies an attitude toward Christ: "every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ."
1. As an Element of Conduct and Character:
His subjection to His parents (Luke 2:51 ) was a necessary manifestation of His loving and sinless character, and of His disposition and power to do the right in any situation. His obedience to the moral law in every particular is asserted by the New Testament writers: "without sin" (Hebrews 4:15 ); "who knew no sin" (2 Corinthians 5:21 ); "holy, guileless, undefiled, separated from sinners" (Hebrews 7:26 ), etc.; and is affirmed by Himself: "Which of you convicteth me of sin?" (John 8:46 ); and implicitly conceded by His enemies, since no shadow of accusation against His character appears. Of His ready, loving, joyful, exact and eager obedience to the Father, mention will be made later, but it was His central and most outstanding characteristic, the filial at its highest reach, limitless, "unto death." His usually submissive and law-abiding attitude toward the authorities and the great movements and religious requirements of His day was a part of His loyalty to God, and of the strategy of His campaign, the action of the one who would set an example and wield an influence, as at His baptism: "Thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness" (Matthew 3:15 ); the synagogue worship (Luke 4:16 , "as his custom was"); the incident of the tribute money: "Therefore the sons are free. But, lest we cause them to stumble," etc. (Matthew 17:24-27 ). Early, however, the necessities of His mission as Son of God and institutor of the new dispensation obliged Him frequently to display a judicial antagonism to current prescription and an authoritative superiority to the rulers; and even to important details of the Law, that would in most eyes mark Him as insurgent, and did culminate in the cross, but was the sublimest obedience to the Father, whose authority alone He, as full-grown man, and Son of man, could recognize.
2. Its Christological Bearing:
Two Scriptural statements raise an important question as to the inner experience of Jesus. Hebrews 5:8states that "though he was a Son, yet learned (he) obedience by the things which he suffered" ( émathenaph' hṓn épathen tḗn hupakoḗn ); Philippians 2:6 , Philippians 2:8 : Existing in the form of God ... he humbled himself, becoming obedient, even unto death." As Son of God, His will was never out of accord with the Father's will. How then was it necessary to, or could He, learn obedience, or become obedient? The same question in another form arises from another part of the passage in Hebrews 5:9 : "And having been made perfect, he became unto all them that obey him the author (cause) of eternal salvation"; alsoHebrews 2:10 : "It became him (God)...to make the author (captain) of their salvation perfect through sufferings." How and why should the perfect be made perfect? Gethsemane, with which, indeed, Hebrews 5:8 is directly related, presents the same problem. It finds its solution in the conditions of the Redeemer's work and life on earth in the light of His true humanity. Both in His eternal essence and in His human existence, obedience to His Father was His dominant principle, so declared through the prophet-psalmist before His birth: Hebrews 10:7 ( Psalm 40:7 ), "Lo, I am come (in the roll of the book it is written of me) to do thy will, O G od." It was His law of life: "I do always the things that are pleasing to him. I do nothing of myself, but as the Father taught me, I speak these things" (John 8:29 , John 8:28 ); "I can of myself do nothing.... I seek not mine own will, but the will of him that sent me" (John 5:30 ). It was the indispensable process of His activity as the "image of the invisible God," the expression of the Deity in terms of the phenomenal and the human. He could be a perfect revelation only by the perfect correspondence in every detail, of will, word and work with the Father's will (John 5:19 ). Obedience was also His life nourishment and satisfaction (John 4:34 ). It was the guiding principle which directed the details of His work: "I have power to lay it (life) down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment received I from my Father" (John 10:18 ); "The Father that sent me, he hath given me a commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak" (John 12:49 ; compare John 14:31 , etc.). But in the Incarnation this essential and filial obedience must find expression in human forms according to human demands and processes of development. As true man, obedient disposition on His part must meet the test of voluntary choice under all representative conditions, culminating in that which was supremely hard, and at the limit which should reveal its perfection of extent and strength. It must become hardened, as it were, and confirmed, through a definite obedient act, into obedient human character. The patriot must become the veteran. The Son, obedient on the throne, must exercise the practical virtue of obedience on earth. Gethsemane was the culmination of this process, when in full view of the awful, shameful, horrifying meaning of Calvary, the obedient disposition was crowned, and the obedient Divine-human life reached its highest manifestation, in the great ratification: "Nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done." But just as Jesus' growth in knowledge was not from error to truth, but from partial knowledge to completer, so His "learning obedience" led Him not from disobedience or debate to submission, but from obedience at the present stage to an obedience at ever deeper and deeper cost. The process was necessary for His complete humanity, in which sense He was "made perfect," complete, by suffering. It was also necessary for His perfection as example and sympathetic High Priest. He must fight the human battles under the human conditions. Having translated obedient aspiration and disposition into obedient action in the face of, and in suffering unto, death, even the death of the cross, He is able to lead the procession of obedient sons of God through every possible trial and surrender. Without this testing of His obedience He could have had the sympathy of clear and accurate knowledge, for He "knew what was in man," but He would have lacked the sympathy of a kindred experience. Lacking this, He would have been for us, and perhaps also in Himself, but an imperfect "captain of our salvation," certainly no "file leader" going before us in the very paths we have to tread, and tempted in all points like as we are, yet without sin. It may be worth noting that He "learned obedience" and was "made perfect" by suffering, not the results of His own sins, as we do largely, but altogether the results of the sins of others.
3. In Its Soteriological Bearings:
In Romans 5:19 , in the series of contrasts between sin and salvation ("Not as the trespass, so also is the free gift"), we are told: "For as through the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the one shall the many be made righteous." Interpreters and theologians, especially the latter, differ as to whether "obedience" here refers to the specific and supreme act of obedience on the cross, or to the sum total of Christ's incarnate obedience through His whole life; and they have made the distinction between His "passive obedience," yielded on the cross, and His "active obedience" in carrying out without a flaw the Father's will at all times. This distinction is hardly tenable, as the whole Scriptural representation, especially His own, is that He was never more intensely active than in His death: "I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished" (Luke 12:50 ); "I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one taketh it away from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again" (John 10:17 , John 10:18 ). "Who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish unto God" (Hebrews 9:14 ), indicates the active obedience of one who was both priest and sacrifice. As to the question whether it was the total obedience of Christ, or His death on the cross, that constituted the atonement, and _ the kindred question whether it was not the spirit of obedience in the act of death, rather than the act itself, that furnished the value of His redemptive work, it might conceivably, though improbably, be said that "the one act of righteousness" through which "the free gift came" was His whole life considered as one act. But these ideas are out of line with the unmistakable trend of Scripture, which everywhere lays principal stress on the death of Christ itself; it is the center and soul of the two ordinances, baptism and the Lord's Supper; it holds first place in the Gospels, not as obedience, but as redemptive suffering and death; it is unmistakably put forth in this light by Christ Himself in His few references to His death: "ransom," "my blood," etc. Paul's teaching everywhere emphasizes the death, and in but two places the obedience; Peter indeed speaks of Christ as an ensample, but leaves as his characteristic thought that Christ "suffered for sins once ... put to death in the flesh" (1 Peter 3:18 ). In Hebrews the center and significance of Christ's whole work is that He "put away sin by the sacrifice of himself" (1 Pet Hebrews 9:26 ); while John in many places emphasizes the death as atonement: "Unto him that ... loosed us from our sins by his blood" (Revelation 1:5 ), and elsewhere. The Scripture teaching is that "God set (him) forth to be a propitiation, through faith, in his blood" (Romans 3:25 ). His lifelong obedience enters in chiefly as making and marking Him the "Lamb without blemish and without spot," who alone could be the atoning sacrifice. If it enters further, it is as the preparation and anticipation of that death, His life so dominated and suffused with the consciousness of the coming sacrifice that it becomes really a part of the death. His obedience at the time of His death could not have been atonement, for it had always existed and had not atoned; but it was the obedience that turned the possibility of atonement into the fact of atonement. He obediently offered up, not His obedience, but Himself. He is set forth as propitiation, not in His obedience, but in His blood, His death, borne as the penalty of sin, in His own body on the tree. The distinction is not one of mere academic theological interest. It involves the whole question of the substitutionary and propitiatory in Christ's redemptive work, which is central, vital and formative, shaping the entire conception of Christianity. The blessed and helpful part which our Lord's complete and loving obedience plays in the working out of Christian character, by His example and inspiration, must not be underestimated, nor its meaning as indicating the quality of the life which is imparted to the soul which accepts for itself His mediatorial death. These bring the consummation and crown of salvation; they are not its channel, or instrument, or price. See also ATONEMENT .
DCG , article "Obedience of Christ"; Denney, Death of Christ , especially pp. 231-33; Champion, Living Atonement ; Forsythe, Cruciality of the Cross , etc.; works on the Atonement; Commentaries, in the place cited.