Did Jesus need to be saved? If He was an eternal, divine being before His human birth, how could His experience be regarded as achieving salvation? Didn't He already have eternal life with God?
Jesus Christ is called the Captain of our salvation. A captain is one among a group who leads the others to achieve an objective. If He was an eternal being before His human birth, how could He legitimately show us how to achieve the salvation God offers?
This is clearly what the book of Hebrews, probably written by the apostle Paul, says: "For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings" (Hebrews 2:10, emphasis added throughout).
This, naturally, brings up another question. Since He is eternal, and is God, then He was perfect. How then, would He be made perfect through suffering?
The question really boils down to this: Was His salvation genuine, so as to be one we can confidently follow, or was it a make-believe salvation? Could Jesus sin? Did He need to be saved? What does the Bible say?
Jesus was human and mortal
The apostle John at the outset of his Gospel says that the Word was made flesh. John tells us who the Word is. He was with God, and He is God—the One through whom God created everything (John 1:1-3). Thus there were two self-existent divine Beings who had lived together for all eternity. John calls Them God and the Word, yet refers to both of Them as God. The Word was made flesh as the Son of the Father (John 1:14).
Jesus was not merely a man living on the earth who was mysteriously linked to the second Person of the Godhead. Jesus was God the Word who lived for a period of time as a human being—He was the very same divine Person.
The explanation we're given in Hebrews 2 continues: "Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood [that is, just as all members of the human family are physical, mortal, fleshly beings], He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil" (Hebrews 214).
Jesus would destroy, or nullify, the power of the devil through His death. That's right—Jesus could die! The One who is eternal actually died—and was later restored to eternal life through a resurrection of the dead. The risen Jesus in His own words says, "I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore" (Revelation 1:18).
This One who was God with God the Father died as every other human being has died. But how could God die? God can't die, unless One became a human being who could die. Hebrews 2:9 states, "But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower ['for a little while lower,' some translations render this] than the angels, for the suffering of death ... that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone."
Not only could Jesus die, but He did die. We should consider who it was who died for us. It was not simply a man called Jesus miraculously conceived by a miracle of God, created on the spot by God for this purpose. No, He was God. The very Being who created all things according to the Father's will, the One who made the human race, was the One who died for us! No one less than our Maker could have paid the price for our sins through His own death. He, our Creator, died for us! (Be sure to read "Who Was Jesus?".)
Moreover, we should consider for a moment how important it was to God for us to understand God's love for His future children by sending the Word to the earth to die! The divine Word's willingness to come down to the earth, emptying Himself of His inherent glory and might to suffer and die in our place (Philippians 2:5-8, English Standard Version), is the most extraordinary example of sacrifice for the sake of others.
Could Jesus be tempted to sin?
This brings us to another question about Jesus' humanity. Was it possible for Jesus to sin? When He was God on the divine plane of existence, it is clear that He could not sin, for the Bible states that "God cannot be tempted by evil" (James 1:13). Again, though, what about Jesus while He was human?
The Bible is clear that Jesus did not sin. Paul says that Jesus "knew no sin" (2 Corinthians 5:21). John confirms that "in Him there is no sin" (1 John 3:5). None of His enemies could convict Him of sin (John 3:5).
But could He have sinned? Was He able to choose to sin? Hebrews again: "For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15). If it wasn't possible for Jesus to sin, then was His temptation genuine?
Perhaps it's better to say that while He was capable of choosing to sin, it was certain He would not do so—the promises of the Bible hinging on His remaining sinless. We'll give more attention to why His success was sure a little later.
It's also certain that the struggles and temptations Jesus faced were genuine. His fasting in the desert for 40 days and nights and being "tempted by the devil" (Matthew 4:1) was not merely a pointless exercise. What the devil tempted Jesus with was appealing to any human being, and Jesus was human.
But just because something appeals to a person doesn't mean that the person has sinned. Yet if there were no appeal, there could be no temptation. When a person lusts in his heart or actually commits the sins, he has succumbed to the temptation. As James 1:14-15 points out: "A man's temptation is due to the pull of his own inward desires, which can be enormously attractive. His own desire takes hold of him, and that produces sin" (J.B. Phillips New Testament).
Humanly, for Jesus there were fleshly appeals, but He had to recognize the temptation and immediately make a clear choice to reject the fleshly appeal to the human heart. How was He able to resist?
Jesus stated that His supernatural, miracle-working power while in the flesh came not from Himself but from His Father (John 5:30; John 14:10). The same power was required to consistently withstand temptation throughout His human life. Thus, Jesus resisted sin through relying on help from God the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in Him. We must do the same.
The temptation of Christ
We earlier read where Jesus was tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). Undoubtedly, the greatest temptation was when He was about to be tortured and killed. Knowing what He was about to face, He prayed under great duress, as reported: "And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground" (Luke 22:44).
This is the moment referred to in Hebrews 5:7: "... Who in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear."
For Jesus to really know what it's like for human beings to struggle against sin, He had to become completely like us: "For in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make a propitiation [or atoning sacrifice] for the sins of the people. For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted" (Hebrews 2:17).
How could He be our example if He wasn't truly human and tempted as we are? He was tempted in all facets of life, yet He went beyond. If a person yields to temptation, he has not felt its full power but has given in while there would be yet more to resist if he did not give in. Only the one who keeps resisting and successfully prevails against a particular temptation knows the full extent of that temptation.
Jesus went the full distance. He "resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin" (Hebrews 12:4). He refused to go against His Father's will even though it meant His agonizing death! "And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:8, ESV).
Thankfully, Jesus' story does not end with His death. He was returned to life—something that, again, required help from on high. The night before His death, Jesus prayed to His Father, "And now, O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was" (John 17:5).
As a human being who died, if Jesus was going to be restored to eternal life on His former level of divine existence, it would be because His Father would resurrect Him from the dead. When Jesus became flesh, He put His entire future in the hands of the Father. If Jesus had sinned while human, there would be no payment for His sin or for our sin. Neither Jesus nor the rest of us would have the hope of eternal life!
Jesus knew it was possible for Him to sin. As we have shown, the temptation on more than one occasion was great. But He also had complete faith in His Father. He knew if He relied on His Father, the Father would give Him all the spiritual power He needed.
While Jesus had eternal life before He was human, He had to attain to salvation as a human being. Hebrews explains that "though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered" (Hebrews 5:8). Was He obedient before He was made flesh? Yes—always! Only now He learned obedience in the flesh through the things which He suffered.
"And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him" (Hebrews 5:9). Was Jesus already perfect before He became human? Yes. Moreover, He was a perfect human being throughout His life in the flesh—as perfect as One could be as He progressed through the stages of His life. But at last He would attain to complete perfection in the flesh by meeting all the challenges to sin and overcoming to the very end. This He did through maintaining contact with the Father—His lifeline of spiritual guidance and help—remaining yielded to the Father, who would empower Him to succeed.
His salvation was put on the same footing as ours. If He was going to be given salvation, that is, granted eternal life, it would be as a human being. Did He and the Father have confidence that this would happen? They had every confidence that Jesus would live a sinless life and be obedient to God the Father during His trying lifetime here on earth.
This is an important way that Jesus is the Captain of our salvation. He went before us and showed that we can attain to salvation as human beings. Of ourselves, this is impossible. When we sin we must ask for forgiveness through Jesus Christ, who gave His life in sacrifice for those sins. We must then yield our lives to Christ dwelling in us and leading us—another critical aspect of His role as the Captain of our salvation.
As Paul wrote, "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:20, King James Version).
Just as we have to rely on Jesus Christ to sustain us in this life, so did Jesus have to rely on the Father to sustain Him in the days of His flesh. Jesus was a human being in the fullest sense. He needed spiritual help and received it. He experienced human emotions, pain and suffering like any other man. He was tempted to sin like any other human being but was successfully sustained by the strength of God's Spirit.
He overcame the world (Revelation 3:21). He relied on the Father with complete trust. He attained to salvation under the most trying circumstances. He was resurrected by His faithful Father after three days and three nights, showing to us all for all time that He pleased the Father.
Was it a risk?
Jesus was willing to do the Father's will to come to the earth as a human being. Was there a risk? No. Not because Jesus couldn't sin, but because each knew what the other would do. Jesus would always do what pleased the Father. And the Father would never fail to sustain Him. (For more on this, see "How Was Jesus' Success in Remaining Sinless Assured?")
The Father was faithful in what He promised He would do, and Jesus had faith in that (see John 8:28-29). Jesus' salvation was sure, not because He had strength inherent within Himself, but because the Father was always with Him. And so is your salvation sure—if you follow the lead of the Captain of our salvation!