God’s Fatherly Discipline (Hebrews 12:5-11)

In these verses, we are reminded once again of the high view that the New Testament authors give to Old Testament Scripture. In verses 5-6, we have a quotation from Proverbs 3:11-12. But when our author quotes it, he quotes it as a very relevant word to his audience, even though it had been written several hundred years before. Not only was it seen to be relevant, but Regal: it was the word of the King of heaven and earth. When Solomon wrote this, he was writing it to his son, and so when he said, “My son,” he was referring to the relationship between himself and his son. However, note the way the author of Hebrews quotes it. He quotes it as a word from God to them, so that the appellation “my son” now is no longer a reference to the relationship between an earthly father and his son but a reference to the relationship that exists between God and his children. In other words, we are reminded once again that God is speaking to us in the Scriptures, not only of the Old but also of the New Testaments. That’s important because it affects the way we read our Bibles. This is not a dictionary or a history book or a book of morals. It is primarily a word from a Father to his children. God is speaking to us in the pages of this book, and we need to take the attitude of the child Samuel who was instructed by Eli to say, when he heard God speaking to him, “Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth” (1 Sam. 3:9-10).

Another thing we learn from the introduction of the Proverb into the teaching of this letter is that the Scriptures are not something you graduate from, but its contents are meant to be revisited again and again, as the first Psalm commands and commends. And so at least some of our problems can be traced to forgetting what the Scriptures say. That was the case here: “And ye have” – or maybe this was a question rather than a statement – “And have ye forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children?” (5). Whether a statement or a question, that was their problem, and as a result they had put a different interpretation upon their predicament than what they would have found in God’s word.

What was their predicament? Well, it was the hardness of the times in which they lived, which involved persecution from a hostile world, and through which they were called to endure. That is the context. They are to endure like their Lord. He had a cross and they have theirs. “If ye endure chastening” (7): there’s that word “endure” again. They were to “run with patience” (or rather, “endurance”) the race that was set before them (1). What required the endurance was the hardness, the trials, the afflictions, the persecutions. Some of them wanted to quit and our author is trying to encourage them to stay in the game.

Speaking of games, that is the metaphor our author introduces in verse 1. But he has not given up on it. In verse 11, we are reminded that discipline is for those who “are exercised thereby,” and that word “exercised” is again a reference to the metaphor of the games, which brings us back to verse 1 and the idea that we are to endure like an athlete in the games, to run the race with endurance so that we cross the finish line and win the crown.

So what was the interpretation these Hebrew Christians had put upon their predicament, their trials and tragedies? It was this: they thought this meant that God had abandoned them. They thought this meant that God didn’t care for them. They thought that this meant that God either didn’t or couldn’t love them. And this of course is the way men usually tend to think of these things. If you get into trouble in some way, it’s karma for something bad you’ve done. We are like the disciples who passed by the man born blind, whose first question was to ask who had sinned, the man or his parents, so that he was born blind (Jn. 9:1-2)? And this attitude not only undermines a commitment to love your neighbor as yourself (for they are just getting what they deserve), but it is also an incredibly discouraging outlook on life. But the idea that if I am hurting or hurt in any way, it’s because of something bad I’ve done, is not a Biblical one. In some ways, the book of Job was written to remind us that this is not true.

And the Hebrew Christians had forgotten that; they had almost certainly embraced this karma approach to suffering. As a result, they were depressed and faint. Their hands were hanging low and their knees were feeble (Heb. 12:12). And so they are reminded of the word from their Father to them: “My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou are rebuked of him: for whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth” (5-6). What follows is in some sense a short exposition upon this text in verses 7-11, and the significance of this proverb is unpacked there. So what I want to do is to consider how the author of Hebrews does this. As we do, we’ll learn some very important things about God’s discipline for his children and how this ought to encourage us when we face hard things through which we must endure. In particular, we will see three things about God’s discipline: (1) the extensive reach of God’s discipline [verses 7-8], (2) the proper response to God’s discipline [verse 9], and (3) the wonderful results of God’s discipline [verses 10-11].

The extensive reach of God’s discipline (7-8)

By quoting the Proverb, our author is interpreting the sufferings of the Hebrews believers in this house church in Rome through the lens of God’s fatherly discipline. He’s going to show that this discipline is not bad but good, and that their response to it ought to be different than the one they were currently embracing. However, what he does in verses 7 and 8 is to show that discipline is necessary. It is necessary in the sense that if you are a child of God, you must experience some sort of discipline in your life. And the reason you must is because if you are God’s child, then he is your Father, and a good Father always disciplines his children. Always. And that means that the reach of God’s discipline extends to every one of his children. He is not a neglectful or an unwise or overly indulgent parent. He loves his children, and so that means he disciplines them.

So we read, “If ye endure suffering, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement whereof all are partakers, then are ye [illegitimate children] and not sons.” In these verses (7-8), the “for” of verse 6 is being unpacked. Why are they not to despise or faint at God’s chastening hand (5)? It is because “every son whom he receiveth” and loves is a son who gets disciplined (6). There are no other options. Hence the extensive reach of God’s discipline (every child) implies the necessity of it (1 Pet. 1:6 - “though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations”).

One of the things this means is that if you are a child of God and are suffering in some way, it’s not like God is targeting you for being worse than others. It isn’t proof that God doesn’t love or care for you. It doesn’t mean that you don’t belong to him. Rather, it means that God is bringing discipline into your life precisely because you are one of his. All God’s children get discipline; we shouldn’t be surprised at this. This is similar to what the apostle Peter wrote: “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: but rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy” (1 Pet. 4:12-13).

On the other hand, if we never have any discipline – well, that’s when we should be concerned! For “if ye be without chastisement, then are ye [illegitimate children] and not sons.” That doesn’t mean, of course, that if you are a child of God then you must always be suffering or that you can’t ever enjoy any rest and peace in this world. But the reality is that we are all sinners. We are all going to go out of the way. We are all like sheep gone astray. We are all prone to wrong attitudes and ill choices. We therefore need discipline, and God will wisely and lovingly administer it to us. Because all God’s children sin, they all need discipline, and God will not withhold from them what they need.

In the Twenty-third Psalm, we are comforted by the fact that, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” God provides our needs. Well, one of those needs is correction and discipline. We shall not be in want of that! Hence, “his rod and his staff, they comfort me” (4). I am told that one of the most common uses of a shepherd’s rod was for discipline. God is the great Shepherd who cares for his sheep; he is a great Father who cares for his children. His rod ought to comfort us rather than scare us away. It is a measure of his love, not his anger.

Nor we must think that the Lord is careless in the way he dispenses his discipline. He will give it to us in precisely the measure and amount and way that we personally need. Our afflictions may look different from those of others, and one of the reasons for this is that we are different, and the Lord knows that what might be good discipline for one person might not be for another. There may be something in my character that needs to be corrected, or some defect in my attitudes that makes me more vulnerable to a certain set of temptations – the Lord knows that; he knows our deceitful hearts better than we do, and he fashions our trials for us so that we are refined and corrected and put back in the right way. This is the reason why the psalmist wrote, “I know, O Lord, that thy judgments are right, and that thou in faithfulness hast afflicted me” (Ps. 119:75).

To sum up, the experience of affliction and trials is a part of God’s Fatherly discipline; it is not proof that God despises us but that he loves us and is taking care of us. It is a sign of our status as children of the Most High. And that being the case, it warrants not a despising and fainting attitude, but the attitude that a child ought to have toward his or her Father. And that brings us to our next point.

The proper response to God’s discipline (9)

In the next verse, we read, “Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live?” (9). Notice that the author of Hebrews doesn’t say you have to enjoy the discipline! But he does say that we should submit to the discipline of our Heavenly Father with an attitude of reverence. In fact, since we afford this to our earthly fathers (or ought to), the argument is that we have an even greater reason to do the same for our Father in heaven, the Father of the spirits of all flesh.

What does this look like? Well, look back to verse 5; verse 9 is a response to the bad attitudes listed there. In verse 5, we are encouraged not to despise the discipline of the Lord. Again, this opposite of this is not to enjoy it. We don’t have to pretend that pain and suffering and trials are good in themselves. It is rather to recognize that our Father is good and wise and that he has good and wise reasons for the trials through which we are passing.

We therefore despise the discipline when we question God’s heart and wisdom toward us in the trials we are going through. This is often shown in a bitter attitude towards God. I think you can have a very robust view of God’s sovereignty in these matters, and yet forget that the sovereign God is also always wise and always good. We must not only submit to his sovereignty, but we are also called to trust in his love towards us. If we are his children, God’s love never fails us. He never abandons us. It may feel like it at times. We may, like David in Psalm 22:1 think that God has forsaken us. But the reality is that God never abandons his children for the very reason that on the cross our Lord endured that kind of desolation so that we would never have to. Again, it may feel like it at times, but we must remember that our feelings are not the best barometer for reality. We need, especially at these moments, to bank our lives on the promises of our faithful Father, promises like Hebrews 13:5-6, where the Lord tells us, “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee. So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me.”

We are also told not to faint when we are rebuked by him (12:5). To despise God’s discipline is to question God’s wisdom and goodness. To faint is often the result of failing to trust in God’s power to sustain us in our trials. If you are only looking to your own resources, you will almost certainly feel overwhelmed. And the reality is that you are right to feel that way when you are only looking at your circumstances and yourself. Like the apostle Paul, you may find yourself in a situation where you are “pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life” (2 Cor. 1:8). But why does God do that? Paul answers in the very next verse: “But we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead: who delivered us from so great a death, and doth deliver: in whom we trust that he will yet deliver us” (9-10). Note that with respect to himself, the trial was above Paul’s ability to cope (“above strength”), but this was to make him look away from his own meager resources to Christ. He ends by affirming his trust to be in the Lord and in his confidence that he would deliver him. This is also the way we need to deal with our suffering. If you are only looking to your strength, you will faint. Instead, look to the Lord. Trust in him and rely upon his grace for strength.

So don’t become bitter but remember that God has a good and wise purpose in the discipline. And don’t become faint but remember that God’s power and grace will carry you to the good purpose that he has for you.

What good end is that? That is our final point.

The wonderful results of God’s discipline (10-11)

In the next two verses, we read, “For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness. Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.”

I want to say in passing here that the author of Hebrews assumes that the fathers are the ones who take the lead in discipline. Dads aren’t to take the back seat to this and leave it to the moms. At the same time, the parents together are meant to reflect God’s fatherly discipline toward us. However, we do it imperfectly. And we do it imperfectly because we are imperfect people. This is the idea behind the words “after their own pleasure” or “at their discretion.”Too often, the discipline is administered in anger, or without carefully determining what actually happened, or by not fitting the punishment with the offense. We are not omniscient and often read the situation wrong. We have to admit that often we are more concerned with our own profit and pleasure than we are with the nurture and admonition of our children. In other words, we often sinfully administer discipline because we administer it selfishly.

But this is not how God does it. There is never a time when he brings discipline into our lives apart from a good purpose that has its origins in his infinite wisdom toward us and his unchanging love for us. We do it for our (selfish) pleasure, but God does it for our profit and good.

What good is that? It is spelled out here in verses 10-11. It is so that we might be “partakers in his holiness” (10). In verse 11, it is called the “peaceable fruit of righteousness.” The aim of God’s discipline in our lives, which often comes in the form of trials through which we have to endure, is holiness, godliness, and conformity to the image of God’s Son.

Now think about the logic of this passage. God disciplines his children for their good. He always does this, for all his children, for the purpose of holiness, or sanctification of life. Now one conclusion we may take from this is that this discipline is the best way for which we grow in grace. God doesn’t do things haphazardly or without purpose or unwisely. And that means that if the Lord has sent suffering into my life to discipline me so that I can grow in holiness, then that is the best way for that to happen. It means that there are ways in which I would not be growing more Christlike if I didn’t to have to endure these trials in my life.

It would be nice if you could become a great runner by just watching videos of runners. But that is not the way it works, is it? You have to discipline yourself, and exercise, and put in a lot of hard work to become a great runner, especially if you want to be able to compete at the Olympic level. No pain, no gain. It shouldn’t therefore surprise us that if we want to be more holy, we are going to have to be willing to be put through the furnace of affliction to get there. In fact, this is the way the apostle Peter put it: “Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations: that the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:6-7). If you want your faith to be found unto praise and honor and glory, it needs to be tried in the furnace of affliction. There is no other way. And that is why God disciplines us.

Holiness is the end, and holiness is worth it. Holiness is not a life of gloom and doom as some want you to believe. Holiness is not getting rid of all the happiness in your life. Holiness is about getting rid of all the junk in your life that parades as pleasure but is really weighing you down and killing you. Holiness is about mortifying the parasites in our souls that keep us from pure and true and lasting joy. Sin leads ultimately to misery and death. But holiness is life: “shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live?” (9). “Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart” (Ps. 97:11). It is the reason why our Lord said that those who are pure in heart are blessed (Mt. 5:9), and why those who hunger and thirst after righteousness are filled (7). It is the reason why the psalmist wrote, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes” (Ps. 119:71).

Holiness and righteousness ought to be our aim because there is no real fellowship with God apart from it. We really ought to be willing to do whatever it takes to root the sins out of our lives, for sin is insanity, a trading of the true and living and glorious God for the vanishingly small ends of self-gratification through poisoned lusts and ambitions. Thus, the apostle John writes, “And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full. This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1 John 1:4-7). Do you want fullness of joy? You won’t find it through serving self, but in glad obedience to Christ. You will only find it in fellowship with the living God and he is light and in him there is no darkness at all.

Brothers and sisters, we have to take the long view here. The problem with worldly wisdom is that it is always short-sighted. It doesn’t look to heaven, and it doesn’t look to eternity. It doesn’t even look down the road beyond what it can see at the moment. Right now, it is true that pain and suffering are “grievous, not joyous.” But “afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness to them that are exercised” by the discipline of our Father.

We can see here just how truly blessed the righteous man and woman is. For righteousness is always accompanied with peace: “And the work of righteousness shall be peace; and the effect of righteousness quietness and assurance forever” (Isa. 32:17). All humanity seeks for peace. But the only way to find it is through that of which it is the effect – righteousness. This is why we read in the prophesy of Isaiah: “I [God] create the fruit of the lips; Peace, peace to him that is far off, and to him that is near, saith the Lord; and I will heal him. But the wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt. There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked” (Isa. 57:19-21).

The apostle Paul quotes from this passage in Isaiah in his letter to the Ephesians. He says, “But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: And came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh. For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father” (Eph. 2:13-18). I want to end with these verses, because they are a good reminder that though trials lead to holiness and righteousness and peace, they don’t do that because our suffering merits God’s favor. Our trials are not there to justify us before the Father. Our trials become blessings of peace because Jesus Christ has already purchased peace for us on the cross. The peace that he obtained through his suffering is the basis for all God’s saving blessings to us, including righteousness and peace which are often fruits of the trials God sends our way.

So what should be our response to suffering in our life? We should first of all see it for what it is: if you are a believer, see it as loving and good and wise discipline from your heavenly Father. And see it for the fruit it produces: holiness and righteousness and peace. And therefore respond to it, not with bitterness and fear and faintheartedness, but with faith and hope and courage. May the Lord do that for all of us, so that our knees are not weak, nor our hands hang down, but may we run the race before us and endure to the end, looking to Jesus the Author and the Finisher of our faith.

William L. Lane, Hebrews 9-13 [WBC, vol. 47B], (Zondervan, 1991), p. 424.


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