DIVINE DISCIPLINE Hebrews 12“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11).To benefit from discipline we must respond to it.
The example of Jesus stimulates us to struggle against sin (12:1–4). We are to view hardship as God’s discipline of dearly loved sons (vv. 5–11), and strengthen our resolve to live holy lives (vv. 12–17). For God has not spoken to us in a distant law, but in a nearby Christ (vv. 18–24), whose kingdom is not to be despised (vv. 25–29).
Understanding the Text
“A great cloud of witnesses” Heb. 12:1–3.
Some consider this a reference to saints and angels observing us, as the crowd in a great stadium cheers on those on the playing field. Others see us observing the saints of ages past, taking heart from their consistent testimony (witness) to God’s faithfulness. Either understanding motivates us to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.” What a great responsibility, to know that what we do impacts others’ commitment to Jesus Christ. “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith” Heb. 12:2–3. Jesus is the “pioneer” (author) of our faith, in that He followed the path of faith all the way to its end. He trusted all the way to death, and then broke out of the grave to open the way to glory. Jesus is also the perfecter of faith. In Jesus we see faith’s ultimate nature perfectly expressed. Perfect faith is complete trust in God, however awesomely death and destruction crowd in around us. No wonder the writer said, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus.” When we are frightened, seeing Jesus will enourage us to keep on trusting. When we are tired, seeing Jesus will give us strength to go on. When we want to turn back, focusing on Jesus will reassure us that the glory ahead is well worth the present pain. “In your struggle against sin” Heb. 12:4. One of history’s great saints, John Chrysostom, whose exile inA.D 403 was caused by his denunciation of powerful churchmen for their pretentions and lack of charity, wrote from exile: “there is only one thing to be feared, Olympias, only one trial, and that is sin.” Jesus as faith’s pioneer and perfecter reminds us that we are better off to choose suffering rather than to choose sin. Christ resisted choosing sin “to the point of shedding His blood.” You and I are most unlikely to have so grim a choice to make. So let’s not feel sorry for ourselves when suffering comes. Let’s rejoice that whatever our suffering, we have not and will not choose sin in order to avoid it. “The Lord’s discipline” Heb. 12:7. As the early decades of the Church Age passed, Christians found themselves under increasing pressure. There was often hostility from neighbors. In some localities there was unofficial persecution. In others there was official persecution by Roman authorities. So the Book of Hebrews, written as it seems to have been toward the end of the 60s, speaks as do other later New Testament epistles, of suffering and pain. Here the writer of Hebrews asks us to view hardship and suffering as discipline. God has not abandoned Christ’s followers. God is simply treating them as any wise father treats dearly loved sons. It may seem strange, but this perspective makes any hardship we face so much easier. We no longer have to cringe away, wondering what we’ve done that God should punish us so. Instead we reach up in our pain, convinced that even our suffering is an expression of the love of God. If you know God loves you, you can endure almost anything. And if you ever doubt that God could permit His loved ones to suffer, consider Jesus. The pioneer and perfecter of our faith suffered the ultimate anguish, though He is God’s dearly beloved Son. “God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in His holiness” Heb. 12:7–13. Two things reassure us when God disciplines. We remember that Jesus suffered first. And we remember that God has graciously explained His motive for discipline. One thing that bothers us is not knowing “why.” We lose our job, and in our fears about the future cry out, “Why?” We lose a loved one, and agonize, “Why him, and why not me?” We suffer from a lingering illness and, try as we may, we can find nothing “good” in it. We begin to doubt Romans 8:28, and again we ask, “Why?” God doesn’t give us reasons for specific hardships. But He does explain, carefully, what He is doing. God is treating us as any good parent treats his own children. God is disciplining us “for our good, that we may share in His holiness.” Don’t expect an economic benefit from the loss of a job, an emotional benefit from the loss of a loved one, or a health benefit from a serious illness. But do expect a spiritual benefit from any hardship. If you and I submit to God (v. 9), He will work in our lives, and through suffering we will grow in holiness. Even more, we will reap a rich “harvest of righteousness and peace” from the training hardship is intended to provide. “See to it that no one misses the grace of God” Heb. 12:14–17. The very hardship which is intended to bless can ruin us. Whether suffering strengthens or weakens us depends on our response to it. If we look at suffering only as an evil, and become bitter, the discipline God intended as a love gift will become a burden and a thorn. Such people miss the grace of God. No, not the grace expressed in bringing the specific trial. But the grace that marks our entire relationship with God, and the grace that is available to strengthen us in our difficulties. A focus on God’s grace will lead to an experience of God’s grace in our situation, and that will free us from bitterness, and we will grow. “You have not come to a mountain that can be touched” Heb. 12:18–24. When the people of Israel gathered at Mount Sinai to receive the Law, lightning flashed and thunder grumbled threateningly. The people drew back in fear, and Moses alone approached the Lord. It was hard to sense the grace of God there. But we Christians come not to Sinai but to Zion. There we meet Jesus Himself, as thousands of angels sing for joy. We come to God through Jesus, and experience an intimacy that was only dreamed of in Old Testament times. Let’s be careful that we do not refuse the God we know so well when He speaks. If those who knew Him less well suffered for ignoring His Word, how much more will we lose; we who know Him so intimately? “A kingdom that cannot be shaken” Heb. 12:25–28. God shakes the earth. The image reminds us how insubstantial and unstable the material universe is. Out of all that is, only human beings will exist out beyond time and into eternity. Everything else will disappear. How good God is, then, to permit us to suffer in this world, if the benefits of holiness and righteousness that divine discipline develops will persist long beyond time. God is good. And when He disciplines us, it is for our good as well.
Child Abuse!(Heb. 12:5–11)
Kids pick up on things so quickly. I suspect that’s why one parent we know was threatened by her 11-year-old. “Make me do it,” he said to his mother, “and I’ll call 911 and tell them child abuse.” Mom kept cool. “Go ahead. I may spend a couple of days in jail. But they’ll put you in a foster home. No Nintendo. No color TV in your room. No stereo. No tapes or CDs. No room of your own.” The boy thought for a moment and then said, “OK, Mom.” It wasn’t like that when I was a boy. I suspect some of the things that happened to me would have raised cries of concern today. Like the time Dad took me out in the garage and whipped me with a leather belt. Or the time I ran away, again, and my disgusted father took the collar off my dog Ezra and put it around my neck! “I can trust Ezra more than I can trust you,” he told me, and drove away. I sat outside that warm summer morning, totally crushed, until Dad returned from his mail route and let me go. But even then I would never have cried, “child abuse.” Even then I was perfectly aware that Dad loved me, and that what he did was not so much an expression of his anger as it was an expression of his concern. Dad disciplined me, not for his pleasure, but for my benefit. And somehow I knew. How wonderful it is for you and me, when tragedy strikes, to be able in our misery to look up and know that we are loved. How wonderful it is, when we can’t understand “why,” to know we’re not the victims of child abuse, but the recipients of love. Children today who shout “child abuse” when loving parents discipline them reject one of Mom’s and Dad’s greatest love gifts. They will surely be the poorer for it. And Christians today, who utter that same shout when troubles come, have forgotten the depths of God’s love, and miss out on one of life’s greatest gifts: the certainty that God is with us, always. And that He cares.
Let God’s discipline of believers serve as a model for your nurture of your boys and girls.
“Troubles are often the tools by which God fashions us for better things.”—Henry Ward Beecher