The Lord’s Chastening Hebrews 12:5–17

Tribulation and suffering befall all true Christians sometime in their lives. The believers addressed in the book of Hebrews were no exception. Persecution had left them weary in soul and emotionally drained. They had suffered severely and had experienced extreme privation and loss.

In Hebrews God reminds us all that our relationship to Him is as sons to a father, and whatever chastening our heavenly Father allows us to face is for our good and ultimate righteousness. God is never responsible for the evil that wicked people do, but He allows it as an instrument to discipline His children. Chastening and suffering bring believers to maturity in Christ.

Hebrews 12:5–17 explains the Lord’s chastening and what it is to accomplish.

Remembering It
The book of Hebrews was written to Jewish believers in Christ. What better way to begin this section than by reminding them of God’s chastening in the Old Testament:

And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons: “My son, do not despise the chastening [discipline] of the Lᴏʀᴅ, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; for whom the Lᴏʀᴅ loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives” (Heb. 12:5–6; cf. Prov. 3:11–12).

The Lord calls those He addresses “sons” (Greek, huios), indicating He considers them true believers. They were adopted into His family through faith in Christ. The word chastening (Greek, paideia) is used in the context of parents lovingly disciplining their children through training and education. Paideia was never used to speak of punishment. It connotes instruction in what is good and right, such as instilling virtue and instituting proper correction to guard a child from doing evil. Scourge actually means to flog with a whip and is used figuratively for the Lord’s corrective discipline, comparing Him to a father who uses a switch to correct his child’s behavior.

Discipline confirms God’s love and proves the person being corrected truly belongs to Him. Even Jesus Christ, God’s Son, was made perfect through what He suffered (Heb. 2:10). So the Lord’s chastening is positive, not negative, to bring encouragement, not discouragement.

One should not “despise” (12:5) or look with aversion or contempt on the Lord’s chastening. Discipline does not happen by chance but is the perfect will of God the Father, out of necessity. Remember, God never punishes His children for their iniquities because all their punishment was borne by Jesus Christ on the cross (Rom. 8:11).

Receiving It
Chastening is to be received as correction from God:

If you endure chastening [discipline], God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons (Heb. 12:7–8).

Older English versions begin verse 7 with if; but a better translation of the Greek text is “for,” indicating God allows the persecution believers face for chastening purposes. Remember, chastening is not punishment but, rather, part of God’s training and education to curb and correct misdirection or evil in a believer’s life (cf. Dt. 8:5; 2 Sam. 7:14). We are to endure or remain under God’s discipline because, over time, it will bring us to spiritual maturity. God’s discipline is a sign to believers that they are God’s children. People who receive no discipline are illegitimate, that is, not true believers.

An illustration is how human fathers train their sons:

Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live? For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness (Heb. 12:9–10).

If we respect and revere our fallible human fathers who chasten us, how much more should we respect our divine Father, who is infallible? He is the Father of our spiritual and physical lives. He not only has our eternal well-being in mind but all that is involved in our present existence. He knows exactly how much and what type of discipline we need and can handle (cf. 1 Cor. 10:13).

An earthly father only chastens “for a few days” (Heb. 12:10), until the child is grown. He metes out the discipline in a manner he deems correct and wise; but he may use the wrong method out of frustration or anger, discouraging the child who then turns away from him with bitterness and resentment.

However, our divine Father has per-fect knowledge and always disciplines His children wisely, correctly, and profitably. His goal is to make them “partakers of His holiness” (v. 10).

Discipline, whether from God or man, never “seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (v. 11). No matter how severe, discipline will produce peace and righteousness. Thus believers should regard the experience with joy, knowing it will strengthen their spiritual lives and deepen their relationships with God (cf. Jas. 1:2–4). Jesus clearly taught that all believers must be pruned and purified to have fruitful lives (Jn. 15:2).

Responding to It
Since chastening is inevitable, the author used the word therefore to call on believers to respond positively to the experience. Quoting from Isaiah 35:3, he said, “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” (Heb. 12:12–13).

The verses describe someone about to collapse physically, spiritually, and emotionally from the chastening; and they exhort the individual not to faint from exhaustion under it. He is to make sure his feet stay on the “straight paths” because if he veers off onto a rough, bumpy path in his fatigued state, he could easily dislocate (turn or twist out of joint) his leg or foot, disqualifying him from the race.

In other words, the spiritually weak Jewish believers who were being persecuted were ready to return to their Jewish roots and needed an inner resolve to stay the course in their new faith. If they stayed the course, remained under God’s discipline with a correct attitude, and looked to Him for strength to endure the persecution, He would heal them and bring them through victoriously.

Then the author admonished them, “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled” (vv. 14–15).

The word pursue means to try eagerly and earnestly to seek “peace” and “holiness” with “all people,” whether Christians or those who persecute them. The word holiness involves the believer’s sanctification in two ways: positional and progressive. Christians possess positional sanctification before God immediately upon receiving Christ as Savior. Yet they are being progressively sanctified through daily obedience to God’s commands. People who earnestly seek peace and holiness demonstrate they are true believers and, as such, “will see the Lord.”

The author warns Christians regarding their responsibility for the spiritual welfare of their fellow believers. They are to be “looking carefully” (see or give oversight, v. 15) with due diligence over their spiritual lives and attitudes toward others within the congregation for three reasons:

  1. “Lest anyone fall short of the grace of God” (v. 15). Some interpret the phrase to refer to a person who professes faith in Christ but falls short of salvation because of persecution. In context, the phrase refers to believers who fail to appreciate and appropriate God’s grace, especially during persecution. Failing to do so makes Christ inoperative in one’s spiritual walk and can result in falling from grace (cf. Gal. 5:4) or being severed from the blessings and fellowship of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
  2. “Lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled” (Heb. 12:15). Failing to appropriate God’s grace during persecution and suffering can lead to bitterness that will be manifested through actions and words. Bitterness eventually poisons the congregation; and “many become defiled,” often causing major divisions and schisms. The phrase is quoted from Deuteronomy 29:18 to illustrate how bitterness corrupted Israel in the wilderness and led to discouragement and idolatry.
  3. “Lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright” (Heb. 12:16; cf. Gen. 25:27–34). Esau is singled out to drive home the point. Scripture never calls Esau a “fornica-tor” (sexually immoral), although he probably was because of his involvement with heathen women. The word can be taken metaphorically, describing him as “profane” (unholy, irreligious, godless), having no regard for spiritual things and viewing them with contempt.

Esau was in line to inherit the birthright and attendant blessings; but being a secular man, he cared nothing about such things or his privileges from God. Instead, he trampled them underfoot. He sold his birthright for a “morsel of food,” a paltry price for a priceless treasure. Though he forfeited his birthright and blessing, his sonship remained.

After seeing his error, Esau wanted the birthright and blessing back; but “he was rejected, for he found no place [opportunity] for repentance [a change of mind], though he sought it diligently with tears” (Heb. 12:17). Esau was rejected because his decision was irrevocable.

The illustration of Esau’s willingness to forfeit his birthright and blessing sent a pointed and chilling message to Jewish believers. Their birthright was provided at Christ’s expense through His sacrifice on the cross. To return to their Jewish roots would forever cut them off from blessing and, ultimately, from maturity in Christ.

As believers, we must persevere through chastening and persecution because, in the end, God will bless us and bring us to maturity in Jesus.

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