STUDIES IN HEBREWS

© Rosemary Bardsley, 2002

STUDY THIRTEEN: THE WAY/COST OF DISCIPLESHIP/SONSHIP

Summarizing what we have learned in Hebrews so far:

  1. The Hebrew Christians have been, and are, suffering hardship because of their faith. This is both physical and religious.
  2. The writer has already encouraged them on a doctrinal level, by referring to the superiority of Jesus Christ and his salvation (chapters 1 to 10).
  3. The writer has already encouraged them on the level of example, by referring to the great cloud of witnesses mentioned in chapter 11, and to the Lord Jesus Christ's endurance of suffering at the hands of sinful men (12:1-3).

Now, having thus given both theological and experiential reasons to endure,

  1. The writer now seeks to encourage them on the personal level, by telling them that the very fact that they are suffering this opposition, is an indication of the certainty that God regards them as his children, and is, by means of the hardship, teaching, training, correcting them, so that they will be like him. The writer assures the Hebrew Christians that this is a proof of God's love for them, rather than evidence that he is not loving, that this is proof that they are his children, not evidence that they are not.

In Hebrews 12:1-13 he makes repeated reference to this struggle:

  • 12:1 'Throwing off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles'.
  • 12:1 'let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us'.
  • 12:3 'consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart'.
  • 12:4 'in your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood'.
  • 12:7 'endure hardship as discipline'.
  • 12:12 'strengthen the feeble arms and weak knees'.
  • 12:13 'make level paths for your feet ... '.

A. HOW INTENSE IS THE STRUGGLE?

Hebrews 12:4 reads 'In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.' Two points need to be noted here: the first, that this 'struggle against sin' cannot, in the context of this letter, mean the struggle against committing moral sin. It is rather the struggle against the sin of unbelief under the persistent pressure of sinful men who are trying to make these believers give up their faith. The second is that, unlike those listed in 11:35b-38 who suffered torture or death because of their faith, and the Lord Jesus Christ who suffered the crucifixion because of his faith, these believers had not yet been pressured to the point of death for their faith; they had not yet been pushed to the point where it was a choice between their faith and their physical life.

By this reminder the writer is challenging them not to give in under the limited degree of pressure they are experiencing.

B. THE LORD DISCIPLINES HIS CHILDREN (12:5-11)

[1] The meaning of the word.

The Greek word paideuo is variously translated:

  • KJV : chasten
  • NIV : discipline
  • GNB : punish
  • NEB : discipline
  • JB Phillips : correct, chasten, discipline
  • Amplified : correct, train, discipline, chastise
  • Living Bible : train, correct, punish
  • The Message : educate, train discipline (emphasising that it is not punishment)
  • Weust : discipline, correct, guide.

Paideuo is very closely related to the word pais, which means child. It is probably impossible to find one English word which correctly and adequately conveys the meaning of the Greek word. It is possibly for this reason that the last five translations/paraphrases listed above us multiple words. The core concept is the bringing up of a child: which includes verbal instruction and correction, as well as other factors such as prohibitions, limitations/restrictions, practical training, practise of skills, discipline (in terms of having to do tasks not particularly liked by the child), and what we would probably call 'corporal punishment', but should rather be termed 'corporal correction', because it not condemnation/rejection, but is geared to prevent repetition of misdemeanours when other methods have failed to produce the desired response or change. All of this kind of activity on the part of the parent is included in this word paideuo.

[2] The difference between discipline and punishment:

Arthur W. Pink in Comfort for Christians, pp 58-70, lists three sharp and simple distinctions between divine punishment and divine chastisement ...

  • In divine punishment God acts towards as Judge: in divine chastisement God acts parent.
  • Divine punishment is received by God's enemies: divine chastisement is received by God's children. Divine punishment is 'judicial': divine chastisement is parental.
  • Divine punishment is retributive, and expressed the anger of God: divine chastisement is remedial, and expresses the love of God.

Pink comments: 'The above distinction should at once rebuke the thoughts which are so generally entertained among Christians. When the believer is smarting under the rod let him not say, God is now punishing me for my sins. That can never be. That is most dishonouring to the blood of Christ. God is correcting thee in love, not smiting in wrath.'

Pink identifies a number of purposes in this disciplining activity of God towards his children:

  • The correcting of his erring child and scourging of his refractive sons.
  • To empty us of self-sufficiency and self-righteousness.
  • To uncover hidden transgressions; to teach us the plague of our own hearts.
  • To strengthen our faith.
  • To raise us to higher levels of experience.
  • To bring us into a condition of usefulness.
  • As a preventative, to keep under pride, to save us from being unduly elated over success in God's service.

Pink warns against assessing why a fellow Christian is suffering, especially against concluding that he is being taken to task for sin.

Theodore Epp also has some helpful insights:

'From Hebrews 12 we see that chastening is a heavenly discipline. The word "chasten" means "to train by correcting." The word "chasten" does not emphasize punishment as much as it emphasizes correction. This is especially true regarding the chastening of the Lord. The sufferings which the Lord permits are not punitive but corrective. Many people have asked, "what have I done that God is punishing me?" Such questions disappear when we realize that for the Christian suffering is not for punishment but for correction.

'It is clear from verses 7 and 8 of Hebrews 12 that chastening is an evidence that God has recognized us as sons. Earthly fathers chasten their sons to bring out the best in them. So also, God chastens us because He wants us to amount to something. God wants to bring out the potential that He sees in us. He has made us and He wants to mature us so we might become useful to Him.

' ... Consider the contrast between divine punishment and divine chastisement. The Christian cannot be punished for sins because the punishment for his sins was poured out on the cross ...

'That the Christian is not punished is made clear in Romans 8:1 ... Christ has already suffered the condemnation. God will not punish a person the second time for the same sins. Jesus took all our sins on Him on the Cross and when we receive Him as Saviour we are delivered from all further judgment. Jesus Christ Himself emphasized this when He said, "He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life" (John 5:24). ... '

Selected from pp55ff of Why Do Christians Suffer?

[3] How we are to respond to the hardship.

[a] ' ... do not make light of the Lord's discipline' (NIV) 'despise not thou the chastening of the Lord' (KJV) (12:5).

Again we will turn to Pink for his insights here. He sees despising the Lord's discipline as one of two extreme reactions to it - the expression of a proud and stubborn will that refuses to be humbled. Pink points out four ways in which this is expressed (1) by a callous stoicism that hardens its heart to bravely endure the suffering without running to its heavenly Father for comfort, counsel and healing; (2) by grumbling and complaining as the Israelites did in the wilderness; (3) by criticising and finding fault with God and challenging his wisdom; and (4) by such a careless attitude to the hardship or discipline that it cannot achieve the refining purpose for which God allowed it.

[b] 'and do not lose heart when he rebukes you' (12:5).

This is the second of the two extreme responses to the Lord's discipline. What is this losing of heart, this fainting, this despairing?

It is, Pink says, firstly, giving up the fight. He says ' How many Christians are ready to completely give up the fight when adversity enters their life. How many are rendered quite inert when trouble comes their way. How many, by their attitude, say, God's hand is heavy upon me: I can do nothing.' Rather than this, Pink says 'Go to the Lord about it: recognize His hand in it. Remember thine afflictions are among the "all things" which work together for good.'

Secondly, Pink says, it is expressed by Christians who question their sonship, who conclude that because they are suffering some kind of adversity, that that are not God's children, otherwise everything would be going well for them. Rather than indicate this, discipline is actually proof of sonship, as this chapter of Hebrews points out.

Thirdly, Pink draws out attention to the reaction of despair, in which Christians are so overwhelmed by the size and the continuance of their troubles, and the apparent lack of answers to their prayers about it, that they fear that the situation will never end, that God will never do anything about it.

For your study: Study the following references: Job 23:8-10; Psalm 139; Romans 5:3-5; 8:17-39; 1 Corinthians 10:13; Philippians 1:6; 2 Timothy 1:12; James 1:2; 1 Peter 1:6,7; 4:12,13. What do these verses teach us about the right attitude to suffering? Whose hands, ultimately, are our hardships in? By whose permission and with whose limitations does suffering come? Is it therefore right and reasonable to pray to God about our hardships? Go to the Studies on Suffering on this website for more Biblical insights.

[c] Insight from Francis A. Schaeffer.

Francis Schaeffer in The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century draws our attention to two opposing responses to suffering:

'Consider further Camus in The Plague. Nothing is better for considering modern man's dilemma. Modern man asks, "Where does justice come from? How can I move?" Camus says, "you can't. You're really damned." The more you feel the tension of injustices, the more your damnation as modern man and the modern rationalist increases. In The Plague, which is Camus' centre piece, as the rats bring the disease into Oran, Jean Tarrou is faced with a dilemma. Either he may join with the doctor and fight the plague, in which case he will be humanitarian, but (in Camus' construction) he will be fighting God. Or, he can join with the priest and refuse to fight the plague, in which case he will be nonhumanitarian. And poor Camus died with this dilemma upon him. He never solved it.

'By contrast, of course, there is the magnificent account in the Bible of Jesus Christ in front of the tomb of Lazarus. Jesus, who is God, and claims to be God in the full Trinitarian sense, stands in front of the tomb, and He is angry. The Greek makes that plain. As Jesus stands there in His anger, we should notice something. The Christ who claims to be God can be angry at the result of the Fall and the abnormal event which He now faces without being angry at Himself.

'It is titanic. Suddenly I can fight injustice knowing I am not fighting what is good. It is not true that what is is right. I can fight injustice knowing there is a reason to fight injustice. Because God does not love everything, because He has a character, I can fight injustice without fighting God.' (pp20-210.)

These words of Schaeffer point us to the valid and proper response to the results of sin in the world, to our suffering as the result of presence of sin, and to others' suffering as the result of the presence of sin. His reference to Jesus' attitude to the death of Lazarus is instructive. We know that Lazarus died from an illness, not because of anyone's murderous assault, yet death and suffering of any form, is present on this earth only because of the entry of sin in Genesis 3, and is not part of God's original purpose for this world. Therefore it is appropriate to oppose it and intervene as Jesus did in the case of Lazarus' death. Not to despise it, nor to despair under its burden.

[d] Insight from the life of Joseph.

Consider the perspective of Joseph, when he was reunited with his brothers who had contributed to his years of suffering:

'And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you ... God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God ... ' (Genesis 45:5-8).

'You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives' (Genesis 50:20).

Here we see God in his over-riding purpose and control, using the sinful choices of man (1) to grow up his child, (2) to save people both physically and spiritually, and even (3) to save those very people who made sinful choices. The results of those sinful choices are things we should fight against, as the Lord Jesus fought against sickness, disability and death when it confronted him. We must never give in or give up in the presence of suffering and hardship. Joseph did not mope and sulk when sold as a slave to Egypt or when wrongfully put in prison. Nor did he give up his faith and curse God. In both of those circumstances he worked his heart out with responsibility and integrity, to the extent that he was elevated to positions of authority in both situations.

Learning from the examples of Jesus and Joseph, we must never view our suffering as something we have to put up with, something we mustn't try to change, in the way that Hindus regard their suffering in terms of inevitable and not-to-be-interfered-with Karma, or the Moslems refer to the fatalistic 'will of Allah'. Our God, seen in his Son Jesus Christ, is not like that.

  • He is the potter who moulds us (Jeremiah 18:1-6; Isaiah 45:9-12).
  • He is the farmer who prunes the branches (John 15:1ff).
  • He is the refiner, purging out the dross, to produce pure gold (Job 23:10).

C. A FURTHER PERSPECTIVE

The concept of God disciplining us as his children is not everything the Bible says about the hardships and opposition Christians experience. Jesus made it clear that all who follow him will experience the same opposition of sinners as he did. He did not suffer because of any faults of his own that needed correcting; he did not need his faith to be enlarged; he did not need to have his understanding of God and his ways increased. Yet he suffered the opposition of sinners against himself. He made it quite clear that those who follow him will experience that same kind of opposition. [It is interesting that in this Hebrews passage the writer, having spoken of this kind of opposition, merges his thoughts into talking about God's correction and training of his children]. Jesus calls us to follow him in this, and in the same life of self-denial the he chose for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

Study these verses:
  • Matthew 5:10-12; 7:15; 10:14-42; 16:25-28; 23:34-36; 24:9-10
  • Mark 8:34-38; 9:42-50; 10:29-31; 13:9-13,20.
  • Luke 9:23-25, 58-62; 10:16; 12:1-12; 14:25-35; 21:10-36.
  • John 12:23-26; 15:18-16:4.

Those who align themselves with the Lord automatically identify themselves with him, as members of his kingdom, which stands in opposition to the kingdom of Satan. Like Christ himself they are targets of Satan's attacks and Satan's accusations. In the all-powerful hand of our good and loving Father these assaults of Satan and his kingdom against us, which he intended to destroy us, are taken up by our Father, and rather than destroying us, they become his tools in bringing us up as his children and moulding us into the kind of people who will image his character and his glory.