RPM, Volume 11, Number 2, January 11 to January 17 2009

Hebrews 12:5-11

A Sermon

By Scott Lindsay

One of my favorite TV programs when we lived in Australia was a show called "E.R." - which you may or may not be familiar with. The show struck a chord with me personally because before I entered into full-time Gospel work I spent four years of my life working full-time as an ambulance officer and our particular unit was connected to the "E.R." or the "Casualty" unit of Rankin County Hospital, just outside of Jackson, Mississippi. So, while real-life emergencies and E.R.'s do not move nearly as quickly or excitingly as they did on the program - there was a certain amount of realism to some aspects of the show - at least enough to keep me interested.

One of my favorite episodes was one in which one of the main characters - a nurse named Jeannie, I think - discovers that she is HIV positive as a consequence of her husband's unfaithfulness. After she discovers this tragic truth she struggles to come to terms with what this all means for her. For the majority of the episode in question, she doesn't make much progress and only becomes more and more angry and distraught. So, the scene is set for the rest of the episode.

Now, one of the things about "E.R." that I thought was often well done was the way that the writers would often weave together the stories of the lives of the doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals with the lives and stories of the patients. The particular thing that I always found intriguing was the way they would often reverse the roles. In other words, in a number of shows, the "patient" turned out to be the "doctor" through whom the doctor/nurse in the show was "healed" or by whom some personal issue in the doctor/nurse's life got resolved - or at least addressed. That reversal of roles was always interesting to me.

At any rate, this is what happens to Jeannie in this particular episode. One day, not long after discovering that she is HIV positive she finds herself taking care of an elderly patient and, in the midst of that, ends up telling him her whole story. And at the end of the conversation, in response to her frustrated question, "Why is this happening to me?," the elderly man asks her, "Did it ever occur to you that this isn't just happening TO you, but might also be happening FOR you?"

Well, the question hits her like a ton of bricks, and leaves her speechless, as I recall. But it is at that point in the show that she turns some kind of corner and things are different. Yes, she is still HIV positive. Yes, she still has serious issues to resolve with her husband. Yes, her future is still very uncertain. But there is a definite change of perspective within her, with a consequent change in how she responds to all that is happening to her.

Intentionally or un-intentionally, the writers of that particular episode illustrated a truth touched upon by one commentator who, in thinking about the passage before us at the moment, said:

...the suffering that tears away at the soul is the suffering that has no purpose. People can endure intense distress and pain if they know it is not meaningless (Long).
That reality is one of the central themes to be found in the verses before us this evening. Before we look any further into that, let us pray together.

Hebrews 12:5-11:

you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: "My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son." Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. 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.
In this letter to the Hebrews, the writer's goal has been to stop his harassed and persecuted readers from drifting away from their professed faith in the Lord Jesus and embracing, or perhaps re-embracing the Jewish religious system.

The means by which he has tried to do that - because of his readers' familiarity with the Hebrew faith - has been to show Christ's fulfillment of everything the Old Testament inaugurated and looked forward to. Because Christ was the fullness of all that was anticipatory and partial in the Old Testament, returning to a Jewish religious practice, argues the writer, was futile and - more than that - was perilous because it meant turning away from Christ and, in the process, incurring the judgment of God.

Well, after majoring on those sorts of things for about 10 and a half chapters, the writer of Hebrews begins applying them, exhorting and encouraging his readers to embrace these truths firmly - and to live as those that embrace them. So far, these practical applications have included:

...an encouragement to confidently draw near to God by drawing near to the people of God, spurring one another on to love and good works.

...a warning about engaging in deliberate sin - especially the sin of abandoning one's profession of faith and then remaining in that state of rebellion.

...a reminder about how they had been faithful in the past, enduring great hardship, including the plundering of their property, and all because they believed the future promised by God was greater than any present comfort they might attain by turning away from Christ.

...a demonstration - by means of the Scriptures - that what God was asking them to do; namely, to have faith that was not dependent on sight, and even contrary to one's own present experience was the same sort of faith shown by their spiritual ancestors.

...a challenge to take courage from those who have finished the race already and who are now waiting for the rest of God's people to cross the line, to avoid the weight and sin that hinder us in the race, and to stay focused on Jesus as the only way we will ever finish.

Now - at this point in Hebrews - the writer, in addition to what he has already said, wants to further encourage his readers by taking aim at a particular perspective that appears to have been troubling some of them. From what he writes in verses 5-11, it would seem that some of them had been looking at their circumstances and were wondering if the hardships they were going through were a sign that God had abandoned them. Maybe God was angry with them? Maybe he was somehow displeased with them and their present difficulties were a consequence of that? Verses 5-11 seem to be a response to that sort of thinking. Look, in particular, at verses 5-8 again,
And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? "My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives." It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.
Now, for many people I think, when they hear the word "discipline" it immediately brings out all sorts of negative ideas and connotations. It is not a very popular word in our day and age. But when the writer of Hebrews talks about the Lord "disciplining" those he loves, it is anything but negative. The word used here is the same one that is found, for example, in 2 Timothy 3:16:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God1 may be competent, equipped for every good work.
When Paul talks about the Scriptures being useful for "training" in righteousness, that is the same sort of word that is found here, in Hebrews, and translated as "discipline."

So, while in our own day the word may typically have more negative connotations, as it is used here it is one that has very positive ones. The "discipline" here is not that which is vindictive, but that which is loving and compassionate. It is not something that is accidental, but that which is intentional. It is not that which has a retributive intent in mind but rather, a reformational one.

The other words to take note of here are "reproved" and "chastises." Reproved is the word that is used in other places to convey the idea of correction, as in correcting an error. Chastises is the word that, literally, means to whip or beat or scourge.

And so, taking all of that together, it seems that the usage of several different words in this discussion of discipline signals, I believe, the fact that God's "discipline" or "training" is multi-faceted reality that can take a number of different forms and can be applied through a number of different means.

As a result, what the writer of Hebrews is saying, in response to these people who are wondering what their hardship and God's allowing it might mean - he is saying that it doesn't mean that God has forgotten you or abandoned you - in fact, it means just the opposite. It means that God loves you, that he regards you as one of his own, as one that, because he is a good father, he takes responsibility for disciplining and training and raising up in the right way.

In saying this, it is important to note not only what the writer IS saying, but also what he is not saying. The writer is addressing these readers in their situation. He is not intending to produce a "theodicy" - as one commentator has pointed out. Now, while most of you, I am sure, know what a theodicy is better than me, for those that might not know - a theodicy is a theology of good and evil. It is an attempt to understand and explain - as much as one can - where good and evil come from and the relationship of those things to the person of God. These verses might be included in a discussion about those things. But they ought not be regarded as an exhaustive treatment of the subject. That is not what the writer of Hebrews is doing here.

Nor is he suggesting, by the language used here, that everything his readers are enduring is a consequence of some failure on their part that has elicited God's rebuke or correction. That is why, it seems to me, he uses a variety of words here to describe the overall process of training.

In other words, he is saying that he wants his readers to see God's allowing them to endure hardships in the same light as they would see a loving Father's use of discipline in the rearing of his own children. He wants them to see it as something that is purposeful - even as it is painful. He wants them to see it as something that is motivated by love and compassion and vision. He wants them to see it, not as the capricious, random acts of those who are hostile to the faith - and nothing more - but rather, he wants them to see it as purposeful and, dare I say it, useful. As Piper puts it, it's just like what happened with Joseph and his brothers,

What hostile sinners mean for harm, God means for good. What they will as hurtful, God wills as helpful. What they plan as destruction, God plans as salvation. What they design as a deterrent to faith, God designs as discipline for faith.
So, at the end of the day, the writer of Hebrews wants his readers to see what is happening to them as normal, as that which ought to be expected by them, as nothing to be surprised about. Indeed, he wants them to see it as so necessary that - if it were absent, if they were not experiencing any sort of difficulty or hardship, if they went through their entire life without knowing significant hardship - then they would have very good reason to wonder if God had abandoned them. And so, contrary to what you might think, it is the absence of discipline and hardship that would, in the end, prove to be a greater concern than anything else.

Let me say that again: The only thing more distressing than sitting under the discipline of the Lord is being completely free of the Lord's discipline. Because whatever else might come of his discipline of us, whatever else we might conclude about it, we ought to conclude this - it means we are loved. It means we are his. That is the first thing I want you to see.

Secondly, and in order to reinforce this point, the writer of Hebrews then goes on to use a human analogy: the analogy of earthly fathers. His point is fairly simple. We respect earthly fathers who disciplined us - and did the best they could. Why not respect God who disciplines us for our good - and whose "best" IS best, not merely what seems best?.

I do not know what it was like in your household growing up, but in my home, "the rod was never spared" - meaning, my parents were never backwards about disciplining their children. I certainly gave my parents plenty of reasons for it. Like the time I nearly set an entire field on fire. Or, the time when I exploded a small mountain of gunpowder inside my garage and turned the entire thing black. Or, the time when I thought it would be interesting to see what a can of mosquito repellant (Off) would do if you threw it in a roaring fire - and actually, now that I think about it, there's kind of a pattern there.....fire....explosions....

At any rate, I gave my parents plenty of opportunity to exercise their philosophy of parenting which involved - among other things - getting smacked. The pattern in our home, typically, was that I would do something stupid and my mother would catch me doing it. She would then tell me off for whatever it was I wasn't supposed to be doing, and then would almost always finish with - "wait until your father gets home."

So I did.

That part - the waiting - was excruciating. It was almost as bad as the actual punishment itself because by the time my father did get home, I had already rehearsed this thing in my mind about a thousand times and had convinced myself that I probably wasn't going to survive this one.

Now do not get me wrong. My father wasn't cruel or unduly harsh. But he was firm. Whenever it came time for me to get a whipping, there was a typical pattern that consisted of his telling my why what I had done was wrong, followed by some comments expressing how disappointed he was in me and how he expected much better than that, and then, right before he got down to business, he would always tell me that he loved me and that what he was about to do was going to hurt him more than it hurt me.

Now, as someone once pointed out to me, what I could have said to my father at that moment was, "Yeah, right. If that's true, if you really want me to learn my lesson, and if giving the spanking hurts more than getting the spanking.....then....maybe....I should be whipping you." Now, in the mercy of God, that thought never occurred to me at the time because if it had, I would have very foolishly said it - and then my father would have probably killed me - twice - just to make sure. More importantly, such a comment on my part would have evidenced not only amazing disrespect but also a complete misunderstanding of the point my father was making. And, to be sure, at the time I really didn't understand the point my father was making.

But I think my dad knew that. And I think my dad probably also knew was that words which made no sense to me at the time and which, frankly, seemed utterly ridiculous - those same words would one day make perfect sense to me. He was right. I understand now what he meant. I have felt the pain that he talked about. I look back on his patient discipline - as painful as it was - and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he loved me. Because being truly loving was more important to him than always being liked or understood by me, he did what love required.

Let me say that again: Because being truly loving was more important to him than always being liked or understood by me, he did what love required.

That, says the writer of Hebrews, is how God is toward us - only in an infinitely better way. God is willing to put up with being misunderstood by us, and even disliked by us - at least for a season - in order that he might do for us what a loving father ought to do. He loves us far too much to shelter us from the trials and hardships which - on the one hand - are certainly a consequence of the Fall and yet which, in his hands become the very means by which he providentially works out his perfect will - which includes his sculpting us into the image of His Son.

To be sure, this analogy between our heavenly father and earthly fathers breaks down in different ways. Some people, for instance, have never known what it is like to have a "good father". Still others had fathers that were good, even very good, but they were still not flawless - or anything close to it.

My own father, whom I believe was/is a very good father, was often hindered by his own sin and finiteness. Sometimes he didn't control his anger well. Not every instance of his discipline was done in the right way, or even for the right reasons. Sometimes he was too strict. At other times he was probably not firm enough. Sometimes what he thought was the right thing - even though well intended - actually wasn't the right thing.

For instance, my father taught us all to be self-sufficient, to stand on our own two feet - that was a big principle with him. But he didn't balance that out with the truth of community, that we were created to be interdependent - not independent. In many ways, I am still trying to unlearn some of those things. Again, my father did a great job with us, and I am thankful for him and respect him deeply. But what seemed best to him, was not always the best in reality. That's the way it is for all human fathers - even the very best ones

Which is why the writer of Hebrews, in making this analogy, qualifies it in certain ways. He talks about how our earthly fathers disciplined us according to what "seemed best to them" and "for a short time" - with the implication being that our heavenly Father, by contrast, disciplines us in ways that not only "seem" best but ARE best and are not just for a short time, but forever, for all time.

That analogy between earthly fathers and our heavenly father was one that the readers of this letter needed to remember, especially now, when things were hard, and they were hurting, and getting weary, and wanting to give up and walk away. They needed to think about and remember - for those that could - what it was like to be on the receiving end of a good father's discipline. They needed to remember how unpleasant it was at the time and yet how now, years later, they felt very differently about it than they did when it was all going on. They needed to know that that was what they were in the middle of right now.

Just as surely as they were now in a place where their perspective on their earthly fathers - and their loving discipline - had changed, so too would there be a time - somewhere in the future - when they would look back on all that was currently going on with a different perspective, with new eyes. From that vantage point, they would clearly see the consistent loving hand of their heavenly Father - even and especially through the hard times. A day was coming when they would feel and think differently about all that they were experiencing now.

This, I believe, is at least part of what the writer is talking about when he says:

For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
One of the results, one of the fruits, one of the eventual "byproducts" of the Lord's providential discipline of his people - whatever form such discipline or training might take - is the "peaceful fruit of righteousness."

The interesting word there, it seems to me, is the word "peaceful." He might have just said that discipline leads to the fruit of righteousness and left it at that. Psalm 119:67 talks about that sort of thing when it says, "Before I was afflicted, I went astray. But now I obey your word." But as important as that sort of thing is, the writer of Hebrews knows his people need to see more than just the connection between what they were experiencing now and righteousness.

They needed to know that the path they were on also led to peace. They needed to be reminded that all these providential hardships that at the moment were creating such havoc and chaos in their lives would - ultimately - bring them to what they were longing to see and know - i.e., peace. The peace that comes from being right with your Creator, from knowing that you belong to your Creator, from knowing that your Creator regards you as His very own.

The peace that comes from the knowledge that you are in step with your Creator. The peace that comes when our hearts and minds - through suffering - have matured and, as a result, are more and more able to see beyond just what is immediate. The peace that comes from learning to patiently look past present circumstances to a greater good. The peace that is a real by-product of our Father's discipline. The peace that can be known amidst havoc and chaos and even great uncertainty.

You have probably heard the undoubtedly mythical story about the Calvinist who fell down the stairs one time and who, afterward, was heard to say, "Well, I'm glad I got that out of the way!" That is funny. It is a bit cynical, but it is still funny. But, you know, there is something to this idea, there is something calming in being able to look at the things that come our way - all of which are here only by the Lord's sovereign permission - and seeing them as happening for you, at least as much as they are happening to you.

I was having a conversation recently with a friend who is going through some very difficult times. So much so that he has really been taken aback, he is really wondering about things, asking questions, struggling with doubts and fears, wondering what it all means. I told him I didn't know what it all meant, and I didn't know where it was all going. But, I said to him, even though I can't tell you what it all means, Hebrews 12 tells me it at least means this:

You are loved,
by your heavenly Father,
who regards you as His very own.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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