So far in Hebrews there’s been a lot of talk about enduring shame and suffering persecution for the sake of Jesus. And the writer’s overarching appeal has been for his audience to persevere in faithfulness to Jesus, for two main reasons:
- It’s the right thing to do; it’s appropriate gratitude, given what Jesus has done for us; and
- It’s ultimately to our own advantage, enduring temporary hardship now in order to take hold of the far greater “city” God has in store for us.
Fair enough. But still, the question remains, why does it have to be this way? And so in today’s passage, the writer gives us a different way to view this hardship: as discipline.
He begins this section with a reference to the Old Testament book of Proverbs (3:11-12), which in isolation may lead us down the wrong path:12:5-6 And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”
The difficulty here is that the Proverbs quote – while appropriate – includes the notion of “rebuke.” It leads us to read it as though the opposition the audience was facing was because they’d done something wrong and needed to be rebuked. But discipline isn’t always about correcting a wrong. Often it’s about “instilling a right,” if you get what I mean.
In my household there are various punitive consequences for misbehaviour which can be meted out to my children when they do the wrong thing; but another form of discipline is when I require them to empty the dishwasher (#firstworldchores) as one of their contributions to the running of the household. It’s not punitive – they have to do that irrespective of their behaviour – but it instills the discipline of housework.
Is this more what the writer has in mind in Hebrews 12? Probably. Because the language a few verses back was about an athletic contest, which requires this kind of discipline. A disciplined athlete (both then and now) isn’t one who is being chastised for their failures, but one who has submitted to a regime of hardship in order to produce the strength and endurance needed to win. One writer puts it this way:“The view of suffering as an athletic contest that requires endurance contains no hint of culpability of hardships endured. Indeed, such hardships are willingly assumed for the sake of participation in and completion of the [contest]… The social context of the readers… was primarily one of persecution rather than moral failure. The need of the community was for endurance, confidence, and faith…. The paradigm of Jesus… also fits this pattern” (Clayton Croy, Endurance in Suffering, 213-14).
The writer is casting the audience’s suffering for the sake of Christ as discipline in a training sense. Just like an athlete disciplines themselves for a coming race, or children are disciplined (trained) by their parents. This is his main point in this section:12:7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father?
We then get an “argument from opposite”:12:8 If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all.
If you’re having it easy, it’s more likely a sign you’re not being treated as a true child of God. Who bothers training someone they don’t care about? Someone they don’t have future plans for? Discipline, by contrast, is a sign of being a genuine heir.
How about an analogy from everyday life:12:9-10 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 spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness.
So if we submit to the discipline and training of our parents – who did their best but weren’t always perfect – how much more should we submit to God’s discipline and training, which we know is wise and helpful!
He then seems to quote a saying or truism:12:11 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.
To think about
We’ll get to the second half of this section tomorrow, where he begins his exhortation to live in light of this. But for now:
What discipline (in the training sense) have you experienced in life that has turned out to be beneficial?
How might it make a difference to the way you live if you understand hardship as discipline (that has a positive purpose) rather than just a negative to avoid as much as possible?
How can the presence of hardship for the sake of Jesus give us assurance?