In Hebrews 5:8 it says that the Son "learned obedience" through what he suffered. Does this imply that he was disobedient at some point, or is there another way to understand it?
Hebrews 5:8 does not imply that Jesus was disobedient. Philippians 2:8 (ESV) reads,
And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Both of these verses teach us that it was God the Son who had no need of obedience before becoming a man. Once he did become a man there were things that for lack of a better way for our minds to understand it, he "learned" or was "becoming". He was always the perfect obedient Son, but in fulfilling all prophecies, including suffering on the cross, Hebrews 5:9 continues to say that he was "made perfect". Which in keeping with the thoughts of this question does not mean that there was a time when he was "imperfect".
The steps for determining a solution are these:
- Assume that Scripture does not contradict scripture.
- Now consider what alternate solutions to the problem exist within scripture
The Scriptures do not Self-Contradict
Disobedience of parents would be sin.
Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee. —Exodus 20:12
Disobedience of legitimate authority would be sin:
And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. And they marvelled at him. —Mark 12:17
Since Jesus is without sin, he was never disobedient.
For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as [we are, yet] without sin. —Hebrews 4:15
This shows that what was lacking, which he needed to learn was not disobedience.
Alternative Solutions from Within Scripture
He lacked experience being obedient when his will was different than that of the Father since normally they were in complete agreement:
I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me. —John 5:30
Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done. —Luke 22:42
I seek only to supplement the answers already proposed with a comparison of my own:
If I marry, I hope to learn to be a good husband. This does not mean that I am a bad husband now - I'm simply not a husband. But in order to learn to be a good husband, I must marry and understand what the role of a husband truly entails. Similarly, if I have kids, I hope to learn to be a good father without going through a period of being a bad father first.
The same way, Jesus learned obedience. He was not disobedient before - he simply learned how to behave in a godly way in an aspect of human life which was previously (experientially) unknown to him. He had not previously known obedience despite human suffering, so it had to be learned.
The Logos who was God became flesh, that is, he became visible in flesh (John 1:1,14; 1 Timothy 3:16). Jesus experienced obedience in actuality because as God he neither experienced obeying as man nor experienced suffering, for he only knew these things, but to do them in actuality is indeed a learning, i.e. experience.
It only means that Jesus gained experiential knowledge about obeying the Father on earth not that he is disobedient.
Before his incarnation, the Son of God doesn't have an experience to obey God in the flesh with suffering for the obvious reason that he wasn't yet incarnated but once incarnated he now can learn obedience through suffering as Hebrews 5:8 says.
Regarding, Hebrews 5:9 the Greek word "teletiothes" is better translated as "made complete" because the Son wasn't born the Savior. He need to do things that would qualify him as such and we know that he cannot fail to be the Savior for he is the Last Adam... no second or third.
If Jesus came as a superman then it would be impossible to become his disciple. He was in all ways made like his brethren and tempted the same way we are tempted. However he cried out to God with loud cries and tears and he was heard because of his godly fear. So he did not commit sin.
If Jesus was a superman then there was no way for him to come on earth and save us. He could have done it from heaven, but he delights in the habitation of the earth. He loves us so much that he risked coming to earth in the form of man, in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom 8:3) and became obedient to death, even death on a cross.
19 Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, 20 By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh;
-Hebrews 10:19-20 (KJV)