Discipline and Punishment

The previous chapter, that great hall of fame, sets the stage for this particular exhortation. The author of Hebrews was not telling Bible stories to no purpose or end. He was emphasizing the centrality of faith in all previous trials because his readers needed an exhortation to persevere in their faith, in the midst of their trial and temptation. Remember the phrase from the previous chapter—”became victorious in battle.”

“Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses . . .” (Heb. 12:1-17). This is a reference to what has just gone before. But the point of chapter eleven was not to get us to look at “the elders” only. Rather, we are to observe them so that we might learn to look at what they were looking at. And as we saw clearly, they saw Christ. As we consider their faithful testimony, we should imitate them, setting aside every weight and every sin that hinders our race. And so we should look to Jesus. Not only was Christ the one our fathers looked to, we should imitate Christ Himself. He went through horrendous trials, keeping His eye on the joy that was coming (vv. 1-2), the joy that was set before Him.

One of the things we must do is to understand our own trials in their right proportions. Our trials are usually not as bad as we think. Everyone thinks that no one else knows “what it is like.” But put your trials in perspective. Think about what it was like for Christ, who endured great hostility from sinners. And furthermore, you are in the same position as the original recipients of this letter—you have not yet gone to the stake for your Lord (vv. 3-4). Most of us have not shed blood in our defense of the faith.

And besides . . . and on top of all this, what trials you do have have an ordained purpose. They mark you out as one of God’s children. Don’t ever forget what the Scripture says, “My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; for whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives”. The word translated here as scourges could be rendered equally well as flogs. Some of God’s favorites receive pretty rough treatment. Now if you endure chastening (v. 7), then you are demonstrating that it is in fact chastening. But if you are without chastening, then you are a spiritual bastard (v. 8). This does not mean that a spiritual bastard is “without troubles.” It means he is without teleological troubles—without chastening. His troubles appear to have no point. But God disciplines His children, and there is a difference between discipline and punishment. Discipline is corrective; the point is to change something. Punishment is retributive; justice can be fully satisfied without the recipient of the punishment changing at all. But when a son is disciplined, the discipline has not occurred unless the transformation also occurs.

Human fathers provide a dim example of the principle. The author of Hebrews does not suppose that the discipline administered by human fathers is a perfect example of God’s discipline. For Christian fathers, we should have our discipline be as much like God’s as possible, but even when the discipline is poor (men disciplining “as seemed best to them”), it still provides a spiritual lesson for us. If we respected sinners who administer discipline, how much more should we respect God, who is holy and has our ultimate holiness in mind? In neither case is the process fun. No discipline is pleasant at the time, but fix your eyes, as Jesus did, on the joy set before you (vv. 9-11).

So get up. Whenever a saint is being tempted to lose his faith, or walk away from it, the tendency is to retreat into his own little world, feeling sorry for himself. “Nobody knows what this is like . . .” The Bible does not tell us that we are quite right, and that we have surpassed Job for trials. It tells us to get up, and stop whining. “Therefore strengthen the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be dislocated, but rather be healed” (vv. 12-13). And when you get up, your duties are right there in front of you. What are you to do with them? First, pursue peace with all men (v. 14);

then pursue holiness—no one sees the Lord without holiness (v. 14); reject the root of bitterness. It causes you to fall short of grace, and it defiles many others (v. 15). And do not fall into Esau’s crass spiritual stupidity—profanity and fornication are extremely short-sighted, and the consequences will follow. A man reaps what he sows. Esau could not undo his selling of his birthright, although he sought that opportunity with tears.

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