The first part of Hebrews 12 sets forth some wonderful aspects of truth concerning God’s purposes for us and how He carries them out. Hebrews 12 comes on the heels of chapter 11 where we meet so many of the heroes of faith. We see that, whether they were called to achieve great things or to suffer great things, the guiding principle of their lives was a persevering faith—trust—in God.
Yet they are not presented to us in Hebrews 12:1 as “dead and gone” but as “a great cloud of witnesses” that surround those of us who remain here. Their testimony to us is not a mere lesson of history but a living word of encouragement sent from heaven itself. It is as though we are in an arena and they are the spectators, cheering us on to victory.
Our life in Christ is pictured as a race. However, it is not a “speed” race but rather an endurance race. It could even be described as an obstacle course. We are exhorted to run this race with perseverance, throwing off “everything that hinders” as well as the “sin that so easily entangles.” The writer, knowing full well that such a race cannot be run in human strength, instructs us to “fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith” (verse 2). Thus, while it is the responsibility of Jesus to “perfect,” or complete, our faith, it surely is our responsibility to cooperate.
Salvation does not even begin until we are willing to abandon self-righteousness and self-effort and cast ourselves upon Christ’s mercy and ability to save us. And, just as we must look only to Him in the beginning, so we must look only to Him all the way home. Salvation is by grace and through faith from beginning to end. Every resource we need is in Christ and available to us as we embrace His promises. And yet, the process itself involves a serious effort, what Paul calls “the good fight of the faith.” 1 Timothy 6:12.
But Christ is also our example. He suffered beyond our power to imagine while on earth, willingly giving up His life. The endurance He demonstrated was directly connected with “the joy set before him.” His eyes were not focused on His earthly troubles but on the heavenly joys beyond. So strong, so fixed was He in His purpose that He actually scorned the shame of the cross. His reward was to be given a throne second only to that of His Father. From that exalted position He reigns today for our benefit.
The concern of the writer was that the trials and troubles of this life might cause his readers to become discouraged. He wanted them to remember and consider, not only their Savior’s suffering, but also His exaltation. He also wanted them, in verse 4, to consider that, however much they might suffer for Christ, He suffered more—and God brought Him through.
We are talking about being God’s children and the evidence that we are His children and verses 5-6 introduce some important principles that bear directly on our subject. There we read, “And 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.’”
The writer here quotes from Proverbs 3 and in so doing reminds of us where our help and encouragement comes from in times of difficulty. They do not come from the self-help section of the bookstore nor from the psychiatrist nor from the pop psychologist on TV. They come from the Word of God. Only God’s revealed Word can give us a true perspective on the race to which we have been called. It’s wonderful that in life’s trials our Heavenly Father goes out of His way to strengthen us through His encouraging Word. When the devil introduces trouble into our lives he goes out of his way to pile on every discouragement that he can!
Once again we see the wonderful relationship believers enjoy with God: Father and child. One of the central features of the father-child relationship is the father’s responsibility to teach and train his children. This passage uses the word “discipline” several times. The Greek word that is translated “discipline” is directly derived from the word for “child” and could well be translated as “child training.” It encompasses all of the father’s efforts to teach and prepare his child for adulthood.
As ridiculous as it may seem to those who know better, there have been many influential people who have advocated “permissive” child-rearing. Of course, we know that leads inevitably to what we call a “spoiled child.” Such a child enters the adult world with a severe handicap. Our natures are much too self-centered and undisciplined to be allowed unrestrained expression.
And it is no different in the spiritual realm. There the goal is that we are changed into the image of our Savior, the Lord Jesus. That is a pretty drastic change! How little are we like Him even after our sins are forgiven. See how He endured the torture and injustice that led to the cross. Over and over again, no matter what was done to Him, he kept silent. He did not defend Himself. He did not rail against the injustice of it all. He did not threaten His tormentors. In fact, He prayed for their forgiveness! A supernatural work of grace is required to produce any measure of such character in a human being!
And that is exactly the point. Our heavenly Father does not simply forgive our sins, hand us a “ticket” to heaven, and forget about us. He is utterly devoted to “bringing up” His children properly. From the time we are born again until such time as He sees fit to take us home our lives here on earth are designed to prepare us to live in His eternal kingdom. Furthermore it is His purpose to use us to help and influence others to come to faith while we remain here.
Such purposes require tremendous changes. And the instruments of those changes are the trials of life combined with the divinely supplied grace to bear them. There is no other way. It takes more than simple “classroom” instruction.
I often think of the process by which a butterfly emerges from a cocoon. Having begun life as a caterpillar it goes through an extended period confined to a cocoon. Finally the day of deliverance comes.
But when it comes it does not simply split the cocoon open and fly away. The process is a torturous one involving a lot of struggle. It is tempting to one who doesn’t understand to take pity on the poor struggling creature and free it from its prison. If that happens, however, not only will the butterfly never fly, it will shortly die! It is no kindness to bypass the process or make it easier.
But if you patiently watch you will observe the weak spindly creature begin to fill out and grow strong. In accordance with the wise design of a loving Creator the very struggle itself is what makes the butterfly fit to survive—and to flit around colorfully on the breeze. What a transformation from its beginning! The ability to change comes from the Creator and yet the process requires a real effort on the part of the emerging butterfly.
It is important to take note of the Father’s motive for disciplining His sons. It is simply love. All too often earthly fathers mete out discipline for all the wrong reasons. It has more to do with them than it does the welfare of the child. The father is impatient, angry, bothered, inconvenienced, his pride is offended, his ego and authority challenged. And so he lashes out at the child trying to intimidate him into a kind of submission. It is sometimes more retaliation than it is loving correction.
But our Heavenly Father’s discipline is always motivated by the unfathomable love He has for His children. He disciplines, not because He is mad at us or disgusted with us, but because He is utterly faithful to our need and His purpose. Psalms 103:13-14 says, “As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.”
This discipline necessarily takes many forms. Sometimes it is only necessary for Him to speak, to convict us in our hearts. Do you sometimes find yourself reacting to something in anger, or hastily saying words in a wrong spirit? When that happens do you afterwards feel grieved and convicted on the inside, just between you and God?
That is one way He corrects us, something like a parent when he has only to catch his child’s eye or speak a word to correct him in something. Would that all our child-training were that simple! But when we sense that inward grieving and conviction it is a perfect opportunity to lift our hearts, confess our sin, and be quickly and fully forgiven.
How wonderful is His forgiveness! Suppose a mother firmly instructs her young son not to play in mud puddles. Then, once he is outside, he “forgets” and gets really dirty. As he returns to the house one look from his mother is all it takes for him to remember. Suppose he then quickly and humbly asks for forgiveness and she forgives him. Is that all there is to it? No! He is still dirty and so she lovingly gives him a bath. Now he is both forgiven and clean! That is how our Heavenly Father forgives.
Much of the time, unfortunately, discipline must be a little more drastic, something that will get our attention. The problem is that sin has consequences. Sin is not just the breaking of a lot of rules that God has made up. It is a very real power that ruins and destroys.
It is rooted in our selfish, lust-driven nature. James 1:13-15 says, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”
If God never once intervened with His law we would still perish as an inescapable consequence of the sinful nature with which we were born. Our acts of disobedience against what He reveals—our sins—simply flow from the sin principle that dwells within.
I have written in the past about the difference between the natural and the legal consequences of sin. Imagine a wise king who knows that jumping off a building leads to serious injury and even death. And so, desiring the welfare of his citizens, he passes a law: “Thou shalt not jump off of buildings.” Note: this is not just an arbitrary—for no reason—law; it is motivated by a desire that the king’s subjects might avoid injury.
However, one citizen is both foolish and willful. He imagines the exhilaration of flying through the air, not thinking about what happens afterward! As he jumps his sense of exhilaration quickly turns to fear as he begins to realize what happens at the bottom. By the time he reaches the bottom he is truly repentant! The king, being a good king, forgives him and says he doesn’t have to go to jail.
That fixes everything, right? Of course not! Forgiveness does nothing to heal the terrible broken leg that he has gotten from the fall. Jail is a legal consequence of the sin of jumping. The broken leg is a natural consequence. Thank God that Jesus has forever settled the legal consequences of sin for God’s children. Their sins will never be remembered against them—even on the judgment day.
But a willful and disobedient child will reap many sorrows in this life if his willfulness goes unchecked. As Paul says in Galatians 6:7, “A man reaps what he sows.” Romans 6:16 says, “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey — whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?”
How well our Father knows this and how faithfully He disciplines His own that we might avoid those sorrows. Often He allows us to experience the consequences of our sins to get our attention before we get in worse trouble down the road. This is like a wise earthly father who firmly disciplines his child so that childish rebellion does not grow into criminal adult behavior that leads to prison or worse. That is no doubt why Hebrews 12:6 tells us that “he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” “Punishes” is a stronger word, a word that is derived from a whip, the kind of whip that could be used in a serious beating. Clearly God will do what it takes to bring up His sons properly. Yet even when punishment is necessary the Father’s underlying motivation is love for His own
But I want us to notice something in Hebrews 12:7. The writer says, “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?” In connection with this I want us to remember that he holds up Jesus as an example for us. But what did Jesus ever do wrong? He was a sinless, perfectly obedient son, and yet look at the hardships He endured. Obviously discipline is more than just “punishment” for something done wrong as we tend to think of it. Where there is willfulness and sin then corrective discipline is very much in order but at its heart discipline is, as we said earlier, child-training. That is, it is designed to teach, to shape character. Sometimes it is just the simple fact of having to cope with hardship that brings about much needed changes in our lives.
Jesus was not corrected by His sufferings but as a Son He was taught in and through them. One thing He learned was obedience, the kind of obedience that comes from having to say no to self in order to submit to God. Hebrews 5:8. And so, trials and troubles are not necessarily because of some sin we have committed. They may be, but whether they are or not the underlying purpose of God is to shape us, both for service here and also for life in His eternal kingdom.
But listen to Hebrews 12:8. “If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons.” This goes to the heart of our subject. Does this passage in Hebrews 12 describe your experience? Do you know what it is for God to discipline you, to deal with you as a Father does a son? Is He writing His laws in your heart, convicting, correcting, instructing, encouraging? Or do you take the lack of discipline as a sign that He is pleased with you and that everything is OK? According to this scripture it is not OK. It’s something to prayerfully consider.
In verse 10 we are told that “God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.” Verse 11 goes on to say, “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.” That sounds like a wonderful harvest to me. There is a peace that comes simply from knowing the Lord and having our sins forgiven. But the peace spoken of here results from a deeper and broader experience of trust and fellowship with God that can only be learned in the arena of life as He teaches and trains us.
After all, we are not our own but rather “bought at a price.” 1 Corinthians 6:20. He is the potter and we are the clay. Isaiah 64:8. Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Salvation is a lot more than just believing in Jesus, living your life, and then going to heaven. If we truly belong to Him we cannot get away with just “living our lives” as people of this world do. Our citizenship is in heaven and our lives here consist of a divine work in us to prepare us to live there. Thank God for Philippians 1:6 which says, “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” That is the glorious hope of every true believer.
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Paul said, “Examine yourselves.” We have sought with God’s help to provide a scriptural basis for doing just that. How did you fare? Did you pass the test? Are you one of the disturbed who have found comfort and assurance in God’s word? Or are you one of the comfortable who has found yourself disturbed by what you have read?
I pray that you will not close your mind, wrap your religious robes tighter, and go on pretending everything is OK. The issues are eternal. Now is all you’ve got any promise of. The final chapters will set forth at least the basics of the gospel Paul preached. It is the gospel that is “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” Romans 1:16.
Remember the parachute illustration. One day you will jump, ready or not. Will your spiritual “parachute” open?