In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 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. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later on it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Hebrews 12:4–11
"This is going to hurt me more than it will you," said the father to the son just before administering five firm smacks upon the child's bottom. That statement never made any sense to me as a child, but as I became a family man I began to see just how much truth was being conveyed--if not for the sake of the child, then at least for the conscience' sake of the parent! I have only one firm memory of being spanked by my dad, who used a leather belt across God's intended seat cushion to get his point across. And he did, since I have endeavored to tell the truth ever since. But I knew then, as I do now, that my dad's purpose in chastising me was not because he received some sadistic pleasure in seeing his child in pain, but because he knew that I would be a better person for following the road of truth and righteousness. My dad sought to fix that truth firmly in my mind, and he did so through the avenue of my bottom. It's interesting just how short a distance that really is when driven straight through.
Our author now uses the same comparison when telling us about the discipline God uses to keep His own children on the straight and narrow.
"Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live?" (12:9). But there is a significant difference between our earthly father and our heavenly one. Our earthly fathers "disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness" (12:10). Our earthly parents disciplined and educated us in the ways they thought we should go "as it seemed best to them." This means that no matter how well they raised us, they were still going to make some mistakes. As a child you may have thought, I'll never treat my children that way, and you didn't. You just made your own mistakes in a whole different area of childrearing. But the discipline that comes from God is as good as God and is used that we might share in His holiness, and when we are properly trained by it, it produces "the peaceful fruit of righteousness" (12:11).
There is, however, much that is misunderstood in this passage. First of all, we must comprehend that when God chastises, scourges, corrects, or disciplines us, it is never because our sin demands it. God has already punished our sins at the cross; "the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin" (1 John 1:7). God's punishment for sin is only one kind: death. Those who have gone to the cross and been washed in the sin-forgiving blood of Jesus the Lamb may no longer be punished or condemned (see Romans 8:33) for their sins. However, they may be chastised, corrected, and even rebuked, for Jesus said, "Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline" (Revelation 3:19).
So what does it mean to be disciplined by the Lord?
The word discipline in our passage comes from the Greek word paideia, and in verse 5 it means to train, to teach, to instruct. The underlying root word is pais, which literally means to be together with a child; hence, to bring up, educate, instruct, teach. In verse 6 it is translated "chastises," where it means whips, lashes, scourges, or punishes. It is the same word used in Luke 23:16, 22 in describing the punishment inflicted upon Jesus. Jesus addressed the disciples as "children," or "My boys" in John 21:5 when He asked from the shore if they had any fish (John 21:5). We see that the basic idea of discipline is the training and education of children. Sometimes this involves simple instruction; other times it may involve whipping. It combines the thoughts of chastening and education, pointing to a suffering that teaches us something. It is important that we understand that God only disciplines His children, and if you are not under the hand of God's discipline, then verse 8 says you are an illegitimate child.
To be an illegitimate child in New Testament times meant a child who was born out of lawful wedlock and was unable to register a valid claim to ancestry. This meant the child could claim no inheritance. Illegitimate children are described in this passage by the Greek word nothos, which also means spurious, counterfeit. God knows who His children are, and any who are not legitimately His will be unable to make an accredited claim to their inheritance, for the illegitimate children born out of lawful wedlock were not allowed into the assembly of the Lord (see Deuteronomy 23:2).
One of the marks, therefore, of the true child of God is the presence of God's love through His actions of discipline.
It is the normal state of Christians to experience suffering, and there are perfectly good reasons why this suffering comes at times from the hand of God. Not all suffering, punishment, and discipline is from the devil. Too many people in our churches are praying against the hard times and tight circumstances they are in as if the devil were trying to defeat them. They try to rebuke the financial strains, the bodily diseases, mental stress, injury of character, out-of-control children, or faithless friends, thinking that the devil has put these in their way to try to trip them up. But quite often these things are in our lives because in our disobedience we have put them there, and God in His grace is using them to teach us a lesson. Instead of trying to rebuke the devil, we would do better to seek God's counsel: "Lord, what are You teaching me? Where have I gone astray? Empty me of self-sufficiency and self-righteousness, and help me to discover hidden transgressions and selfish attitudes, so that You might receive ‘praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ'" (see 1 Peter 1:7).
The Psalmist said, "Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word. You are good and do good; teach me your statutes" (Psalm 119:67-68). He went on to say, "It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes" (Psalm 119:71). David was very aware of the lessons God was teaching him--lessons that could only be learned in the crucible of adversity and affliction. Jesus taught us that we have God's blessing when we are persecuted for our righteous stand among men (Matthew 5:10-12). Paul told the believers in Lystra, "Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22), and when Jesus told Ananias that he was to go and pray for Paul, He said, "I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name" (Acts. 9:16). Later in ministry Paul told the Thessalonians, "Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring. This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering" (2 Thessalonians 1:4-5).
Do we understand that not all of our sufferings as believers come as divine rebukes for some wrong we have done?
Paul received a thorn in his flesh to keep him from sin (see 2 Corinthians 12:7). Sometimes our suffering strengthens us in God's graces (see James. 1:2-3). Or, our suffering may actually confirm God's truth among men (see Acts 5:41). Job endured God's chastisement and came to know God better. Abraham grew in his faith through the stern hand of God. David was rebuked for his pride in counting his fighting men, and Paul was prevented from becoming prideful through his frail flesh, and even Jesus learned obedience through His suffering (see Hebrews 5:8). In view of the widely differing reasons for God's discipline--chastening, teaching, education, revealing, prevention--we should soon discover how completely incompetent we are in diagnosing and pronouncing judgments upon our brothers and sisters in Christ who are living under the firm, loving, and instructive hand of God.