«God’s Discipline (Hebrews 12:4-13) We’re coming to the end of the Book of Hebrews. We’ve noticed it’s a longish sermon (about an hour long) ...»
God’s Discipline (Hebrews 12:4-13)
We’re coming to the end of the Book of Hebrews. We’ve noticed it’s a longish
sermon (about an hour long) by an outstanding preacher. Up to now, the
preacher has been a real encourager to these struggling Hebrew Christians. But
today’s text, verse 4, he seems to have lost his touch. To us he seems downright
tactless. Look what he says: “Okay, you’re suffering. But it could be worse. It’s not
I’m not sure you’d be impressed if I said to you (verse 4): “In your battle against evil, you still haven’t resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” That, by the way, is not original with the Hebrews preacher. It’s a quote. It’s the exact line made famous by the Maccabeans. The Maccabeans were a fierce Jewish warrior family who lived about 150 years before Jesus. They waged a guerilla war against the occupying Roman forces with astonishing success. They managed to chase the
Romans out of Jerusalem, for awhile. So here’s how they encouraged their troops:
“Hey, you’re not dead yet. I don’t see blood flowing. Keep fighting!” Okay, so the preacher becomes a bit more pastoral in verses 5 and 6, but it’s still a pretty hard word to hear: “The reason you’re suffering so much is God loves you.” Verse 7: That’s how God treats his children. It’s God who is disciplining you. So, on one hand (verse 5), don’t make light of the discipline. On the other hand, don’t lose heart either. It’s for your own good. It means you’re a child of God. Are you feeling the pain? Don’t stress. God’s just paying special attention to you. God won’t give you more than you can handle. It could be a whole lot worse. Look through the rainclouds for the silver lining. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Right—platitudes and cliché! Like that makes everything better. Is that really all the Hebrews preacher has to offer in the end (in conclusion)—platitudes and cliché? Surely not. So, let’s probe a bit deeper.
One thing the preacher definitely got right is that being a Christian does not exempt us from suffering. This is a very difficult thing for us preachers to admit to you. We’d much rather tell you that being a Christian gives you a distinct edge over the competition. But, unfortunately, Christians get cancer at the same rate and in the same proportion as non-Christians. Believers are involved in about as many automobile accidents as nonbelievers. When you hit your thumb with a 1|Page hammer, it hurts just as much after you’ve accepted Jesus as your Lord and Saviour as it did before.
Eugene Peterson points out how some Christian preachers, especially here in North America (and often on TV), will tell you something different. But they’re just selling “lottery tickets on a jackpot of the supernatural.” They advertise Christianity as the secret to a trouble-free life. Don’t buy it. You can buy lots of popular “Christian” books that promise to reveal to us Christians the special secrets to success and prosperity in our marriage and our business. Health and wealth, and freedom from suffering.1 So here’s the thing: who are we to believe? Contemporary health and wealth preachers, or the Hebrews preacher, and Paul, and Peter, and even Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? They all promise Christians will have to endure suffering. But they also tell us that suffering is not a sign that God has forgotten us, or abandoned us, or that God doesn’t love us.
When we suffer we inevitably ask questions: “Why me? What did I do to deserve this? Why is God being so hard on me? When will this be over?” But what makes suffering different for Christians is that it’s not meaningless. Our suffering is God writing us into God’s great story of love. God’s discipline: it’s the story of our Spiritual Father, our heavenly Father, loving us! But what kind of love is that?
Maybe that word “discipline” just sounds harsh to you. Sounds like what you maybe remember about ancient Sparta from your history lessons. In Sparta life was all about military preparation. Any weak or deformed baby was immediately exposed and left out in the elements to die, by order of Sparta. Boys entered military school at age seven. Their first task: weave a mat of coarse river reeds, which they’ll sleep on for the rest of their lives. These little boys were forced to run for miles while the older boys would flog them. Sometimes they died from exhaustion. They’d be encouraged to kill a slave or two from their neighbourhood as a rite of passage. At age twenty, after thirteen years of training, the surviving young men finally became soldiers. They served in the Spartan army until age sixty. They lived in communal barracks, where they shared meals and bunked together.2 That’s discipline, right?
Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), 194.
Eric Sass and Steve Wiegand, The Mental Floss History of the World: An Irreverent Romp through Civilization's Best Bits (New York: Harper, 2008), 41.
2|Page But that’s not God’s discipline. That’s not at all the discipline our Hebrews preacher is talking about. The word translated “discipline” that keeps getting repeated over and over in our text (eight times) is παιδεία. Can you hear any English word that comes from it? [Pediatrics, Pedagogy]. This refers to the training and guidance of a beloved child (παιδίον). παιδεία is about helping a child grow up and mature. The Spartans had their childhood stripped away from them, flogged out of them. But the purpose of God’s discipline is so we can rediscover our childhood, so we find out who we really are—God’s beloved children.
Now of course, you parents know that sometimes discipline doesn’t work. Even if the time-out or the lecture seemed like a good idea at the time. You see, your child has a role to play too in the discipline—in the training, the correcting, the reproving, right? Maybe your two kids get into a fight. So you send them both to their room. Maybe one uses the time to be thoughtful about how to handle the conflict better next time. But the other is plotting how to get even, and just getting madder. See, God’s discipline also needs your cooperation!
So, what does it look like for us to cooperate with God and let God’s discipline grow us up into God’s children?
One thing we know: children aren’t impressed by principles and platitudes. What children love is stories. Kids just aren’t into “Five Theological Truths about Discipline” or “Four Solid Principles of Effective Discipline,” or “Ten Moral Guidelines for Achieving Results” or Three Secrets to the Happy Disciplined Life.” We adults often think we want those kinds of lists, but even for us they don’t really satisfy. None of that adult stuff really gives answers to our suffering.
Besides, even the Bible doesn’t look like that. The Bible is full of stories. In fact, the Bible is a story—one great, big, sprawling, wonderful story. It’s stories that shape us. It’s stories that change us. And that’s why children are constantly begging us, “Tell me a story.” For years, Josh would come up to me—ten times a day or more, I think—and say, “Tell me a story… and put me in it.” So we’re adults. We think discipline is not for us adults. Strict rules, clear directions, time-outs: that’s all for kids. But, actually, we are children of God and what we want isn’t really another “how to” list. We want a story. We already know that our suffering doesn’t have any nice, neat and tidy answers. But if my struggles, my discipline, are a part of God’s great wonderful salvation story, well then, my imagination starts to open up and I start seeing connections I’ve never 3|Page seen before. I start to see God at work. I even start to see some meaning and purpose in my struggles. It’s still really hard, but I’m a character—a hero, even—in God’s story. More than a hero: a son, a daughter, loved by God.
So I’m not going to give you a bunch of principles for letting God’s discipline make you more fully a child. Instead, let’s just be God’s children, and hear a story. Let’s reach back—way back—to one of our great stories about one of those unpolished heroes of the faith in chapter 11. It’s the longest story we have in the Bible, other than the story of Jesus. Who’s the biblical “hero” we know the most about, next to Jesus? Clue: he became known as the “man after God’s own heart.”3 So you’d think David would have a pretty great life, right? If he’s a man after God’s own heart, you’d think God should take good care of him. You’d think God wouldn’t let him suffer like other people suffer. But just think of this: lots of God’s extraordinary miracles in the Bible, right? Yet here is the man closest to God, the chosen son of God, the hero after God’s own heart—and there’s not a single miracle in the life of David. An extraordinary life, yet marked by ordinary suffering and family strife. Marked by ordinary lust and anger and adultery and even murder. I’d love to look at David’s entire life (it’s all there in the Old Testament books of 1 and 2 Samuel), but because David’s story is so massive, I’ll have to be selective.
We first meet David as a child. A child misunderstood and basically ignored by his family. When Prophet Samuel shows up at Jesse’s home and tells Jesse he wants to interview all his sons, Jesse lines them up but completely forgets about the baby of the family. Apparently David doesn’t count. Samuel was looking for God’s future king, God’s anointed. “None of these,” God says.
Finally Samuel asks Jesse, “Is this all your sons?” “Oh, right, the youngest. He’s way out back, looking after the sheep.” “Call him,” Samuel orders.
And God tells Samuel, “I have chosen this little boy.” So Samuel anoints David.
See Acts 13:22.
4|Page But then Jesse sends him back to the sheep. David isn’t frustrated. He talks to God. He creates poetry for God. We have dozens and dozens of David’s poemprayers to God. They’re called the Psalms. Psalm 23:1: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” Psalm 95:7: “We are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.” Psalm 94:12: “Blessed are those you discipline, Lord, those you teach…” Young David is cooperating with God, and God’s discipline.
With lots of time on his hands, David gets really good with his hands—playing the harp; slinging stones with pinpoint accuracy. He even kills a hungry bear and lion, when they come looking for sheep to eat. And then one day he kills the Philistine giant Goliath. And King Saul is so impressed he takes on David as his son. And David fights Saul’s battles for him, and plays the harp to soothe Saul’s troubled spirit.
Saul recognizes God’s Spirit is on David, and becomes jealous. While David is playing his harp for the king, Saul hurls his javelin at him, trying to pin him to the wall. Several times, David has to dodge! Finally, David is forced to flee into the wilderness and hide.
But Saul is so afraid of David he even takes his army into the wilderness and chases him there—for years!—trying to track David down and kill him. Once Saul went into a cave to relieve himself. David and some of his friends just happened to be in the back of that wilderness cave. One of David’s friends says, “David, God has given your enemy into your hands. Kill him!” But David refuses. He gets God’s discipline. It’s not revenge. But he does sneak up and cut a corner off Saul’s royal robe, which he shows Saul afterward to prove to the King he bore no malice toward Saul.
One day Saul went to war with his Philistine enemies, and he was killed in an epic battle. David is finally crowned king. The coronation hymn is the famous Psalm 2,
quoted over and over in the New Testament. It’s on your bulletin cover:
“‘Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?...
I have installed my king on Zion (Jerusalem), my holy mountain.’
I will proclaim the LORD’s decree:
He said to me, ‘You are my son;
today I have become your father.’” 5|Page His father Jesse was not a great natural father. King Saul was even worse—a terrible surrogate father. Yet somehow through it all, David still discovers God as his true Father. So how does David do as a father himself?
Lots of people know the David and Goliath story. The other story most people will know about David is the David and ? story. David was wandering about on his high palace balcony. He looked down; there’s the beautiful Bathsheba bathing.
Even though David already had seven wives, he sends for her anyway. He learns Bathsheba is already married, but David takes her to bed anyway. The result of the adultery: Bathsheba becomes pregnant. What to do? David ends up murdering Bathsheba’s husband, then taking her as wife number eight.
But sin tends to feed on sin. David’s grown-up son Amnon is also attacked by an enormous case of lust. He becomes obsessed with David’s beautiful daughter Tamar (his half-sister). Amnon is so infatuated he gets ill. After a period of pining and scheming, he manages to get Tamar alone, and he rapes his virgin sister.
David is very angry when he hears the story, but what can he say? What can he do to Amnon after his own failure? He basically does nothing.
But Tamar’s older brother is Absalom. He’s incensed—determined to avenge his sister. He doesn’t just lose his temper though. He plots coolly and carefully. When the details are all in place he brutally murders Amnon. What’s David to do now?
Absalom is his favourite son. But David can’t just overlook one son murdering another son, can he? Absalom gets forced into exile, a very long time-out. Finally, after three years, Absalom is allowed back into Jerusalem, but David refuses to see him. But is this God’s kind of discipline?
What if David had been the father that Jesus described, the father of that prodigal son who went off into a far country and lived a life of utter self-indulgence, and then finally returned in disgrace to his father’s house? That father had run, arms outstretched, to his son. He embraced him, threw a huge banquet for him.