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28. The Problem of Pain (Hebrews 12:4-17)

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4 You have not yet resisted to the point of bloodshed in your struggle against sin. 5 And have you forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as sons?

      “My son, do not scorn the Lord’s discipline

      or give up when he corrects you.

      6 “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son he accepts.

7 Endure your suffering as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? 8 But if you do not experience discipline, something all sons have shared in, then you are illegitimate and are not sons. 9 Besides, we have experienced discipline from our earthly fathers and we respected them; shall we not submit ourselves all the more to the Father of spirits and receive life? 10 For they disciplined us for a little while as seemed good to them, but he does so for our benefit, that we may share his holiness. 11 Now all discipline seems painful at the time, not joyful. But later it produces the fruit of peace and righteousness for those trained by it.

12 Therefore, strengthen your listless hands and your weak knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but be healed. 14 Pursue peace with everyone, and holiness, for without it no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God, that no one be like a bitter root springing up and causing trouble, and through him many become defiled. 16 And see to it that no one becomes an immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that later when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no opportunity for repentance, although he sought the blessing with tears (Hebrews 12:4-17).2

Introduction

My grandmother was a wonderful, godly, woman who lived to the age of 106. She spent her last few years living with my parents in Washington State. She had learned to be frugal during the Great Depression, and this remained one of her traits the rest of her life. One way that she did what she could to save money was to turn off all the lights. As she became elderly and more frail, my parents determined that she should have a light on in her room during the night, so that she would not fall in the darkness. Grandma D seemed to agree with this, in principle, but somehow the light in her room always got turned off. My father would emphasize the importance of leaving the light on, and she would agree, and then forget within a few minutes. It was something she did without really thinking about it.

One day my father sought to make the point more strongly, and so he explained what might happen if the light were turned off and she fell. Grandma was always eager to please my dad, and so she agreed that she would leave it on – again. Then, with a twinkle in her eye, she posed this question to my dad: “What if I don’t?” My father replied, “Well, mom, I guess that it will just have to be the woodshed, then.” My dad had come to know the “woodshed” (there really was a literal woodshed) from his experience as a child. It was there that the switch was applied to the proper place to administer discipline. My Grandma pondered the thought for a moment, and savored the humor, only to conclude the discussion with this comment: “Better get help.”

The “woodshed” (or its equivalent) was well known in bygone days. Spankings were commonly administered and accepted in those days, and instances of “abuse” were few and far between. A number of us who are my age or beyond learned some important lessons in “the woodshed.”

When I finished college and was interviewing for a teaching position, I met with a couple of men from a large school district in the Seattle area. They asked me a number of questions and at the end of the interview, they asked if I had any questions. I said, “Yes, I’m wondering what your policy is on corporal punishment.” They asked if this was important to me, and I replied, “Yes it is; I will not teach in a school district where it is forbidden.”

I never heard back from this school system, but in the providence of God I was able to fill a vacancy due to a death in the middle of the school year. In this school district, spanking was allowed. I had a mahogany paddle that had been milled and drilled to produce the maximum impact (not just on the offender; the loud “crack” of this paddle sent a message to other students who recognized this sound). I would guess that in the 2½ years that I taught, I did not use that paddle more than a half dozen times. The offender received only one swat from me, but it always seemed sufficient. No student or parent ever protested that this was “cruel and unusual.” One student actually said, “Mr. Deffinbaugh, the more you spank me, the better I like you.” And I only paddled him one time! He knew that he deserved it, and the paddle was a quick, though painful, way to put the matter behind us.

I tell these stories because our text deals with the subject of discipline. One of the texts that our author will cite is found in Proverbs 3, and we should all recall that Proverbs has a great deal to say about spanking. Spanking was at least tolerated, if not widely practiced, in my teaching days now some four decades or so ago. Today, spanking (as well as other forms of punishment) is viewed as the outpouring of a primitive and unacceptable form of violence.

If we are going to understand the meaning of our text, we must do several things. First, we must recognize that our culture and the Bible are in conflict over how one is to train up a child. And our culture is wrong! Let me be very clear here that I am not advocating or excusing child abuse. But I am saying that the Bible sets forth spanking as one of the means that a parent is to employ in the raising of children.

      The one who spares his rod hates his child,

      but the one who loves his child is diligent in disciplining him (Proverbs 13:24).

      Folly is bound up in the heart of a child,

      but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him (Proverbs 22:15).

      13 Do not withhold discipline from a child;

      even if you strike him with the rod, he will not die.

      14 If you strike him with the rod,

      you will deliver him from death (Proverbs 23:13-14)

      15 A rod and reproof impart wisdom,

      but a child who is unrestrained brings shame to his mother (Proverbs 29:15).

Second, if we are going to understand our text, we must realize how much God hates sin. We must also grasp how committed God is to our growth toward righteousness. The intensity of God’s discipline in the life of the Christian is to be determined on the basis of how much God hates sin and desires righteousness. We live in a day when our culture loves sin more than righteousness, and thus we find divine discipline excessive.

An Overview of Hebrews 12:1-17

Fixing our eyes on Jesus – Hebrews 12:1-3. Granted, chapter 12 begins with a reference to the “great cloud of witnesses” (some of whom were described in chapter 11), but it seems clear to me that the author does not wish us to focus on these flawed people of faith, but rather to focus on the pioneer and perfecter of faith. It is His completion of His mission that should both enable and inspire us to complete the race set before us. His suffering is the grounds for our striving with endurance.

Our suffering viewed from a different (divine) perspective – Hebrews 12:4-11. Granted, the Hebrew recipients of this epistle are already suffering, but they need to view this from a different point of view.3 The suffering of these saints will be contrasted with that of the Savior (verse 4), and then presented as the discipline which comes from the hand of a loving Father, a discipline which is for their eternal good.

A call to action: looking for ways to strengthen others – Hebrews 12:12-17. Having explained why suffering has come their way, the author now moves to exhortation and application. Rather than spend their time and energy complaining, or focusing on themselves, they should be seeking ways to encourage others who are growing weary in their Christian lives.

Seeing Our Suffering in a Different Light
Hebrews 12:4-11

4 You have not yet resisted to the point of bloodshed in your struggle against sin. 5 And have you forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as sons?

      “My son, do not scorn the Lord’s discipline

      or give up when he corrects you.

      6 “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son he accepts.”

7 Endure your suffering as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? 8 But if you do not experience discipline, something all sons have shared in, then you are illegitimate and are not sons. 9 Besides, we have experienced discipline from our earthly fathers and we respected them; shall we not submit ourselves all the more to the Father of spirits and receive life? 10 For they disciplined us for a little while as seemed good to them, but he does so for our benefit, that we may share his holiness. 11 Now all discipline seems painful at the time, not joyful. But later it produces the fruit of peace and righteousness for those trained by it (Hebrews 12:4-11).

I see this section in two parts. The author first contrasts the readers’ minimal suffering (thus far) with the unfathomable suffering of the Lord Jesus (verses 2-4). Then he seeks to show his readers that their suffering is not for their destruction, but for their development. Their suffering is divine discipline, which while painful at the moment, will produce righteousness and rewards in the end.

The Readers’ Suffering Viewed in the Light of the Redeemer’s Sacrifice
Hebrews 12:2-4

2 Keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set out for him he endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Think of him who endured such opposition against himself by sinners, so that you may not grow weary in your souls and give up. 4 You have not yet resisted to the point of bloodshed in your struggle against sin (Hebrews 12:2-4).

As I read this text, my mind fixes upon the contrast between the readers’ suffering in verse 4 with the Redeemer’s suffering in verses 2-3. He endured the eternal wrath of God so that men might be saved. He also endured the incredible opposition of sinners. And all of this suffering is contrasted with the rather puny price that the readers have, as yet, paid for their identification with Jesus. Our Lord suffered immense and eternal torment – the wrath of men and of the Father. The readers have not yet shed blood for their faith (though they may do so before too long). But even if they were to die a martyr’s death, it would never begin to compare with the suffering of Jesus. You may wish to think of it this way: Our suffering does not hold a candle to His, and yet His suffering is what we deserve.

Christian Suffering Viewed as Divine Discipline
Hebrews 12:5-11

5 And have you forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as sons?

      “My son, do not scorn the Lord’s discipline

      or give up when he corrects you.

      6 “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son he accepts.”

7 Endure your suffering as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? 8 But if you do not experience discipline, something all sons have shared in, then you are illegitimate and are not sons. 9 Besides, we have experienced discipline from our earthly fathers and we respected them; shall we not submit ourselves all the more to the Father of spirits and receive life? 10 For they disciplined us for a little while as seemed good to them, but he does so for our benefit, that we may share his holiness. 11 Now all discipline seems painful at the time, not joyful. But later it produces the fruit of peace and righteousness for those trained by it (Hebrews 12:5-11).

The disciples of Jesus, along with most of the Jews of that day, believed that suffering was divine punishment, and that prosperity and success were divine rewards for righteousness. No wonder John the Baptist was taken aback by his imprisonment (which Jesus did nothing to remedy). This is also why the disciples – as well of the Jews of Jerusalem – assumed that the man born blind was being punished for his sins, or for the sins of his parents (John 9:1-2). Jesus shocked nearly everyone when He taught,

      “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God belongs to you.

      21 “Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.

      “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

      22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you and insult you and reject you as evil on account of the Son of Man! 23 Rejoice in that day, and jump for joy, because your reward is great in heaven. For their ancestors did the same things to the prophets.

      24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your comfort already.

      25 “Woe to you who are well satisfied with food now, for you will be hungry.

      “Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.

      26 “Woe to you when all people speak well of you, for their ancestors did the same things to the false prophets” (Luke 6:20-26).

So, too, the story of the rich man and Lazarus would have turned the thinking of that day (and of ours) upside-down. How could it be that a rich man would go to hell, while a poor beggar would go to heaven? Jesus is teaching that riches are not proof of righteousness, and prosperity is not necessarily an indication of piety. How, then, could suffering be explained?

Our author has the answer in verses 5-11. He begins by quoting from the third chapter of the Book of Proverbs:

5 And have you forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as sons?

      “My son, do not scorn the Lord’s discipline

      or give up when he corrects you.

      6 “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves

      and chastises every son he accepts” (Hebrews 12:5-6, citing Proverbs 3:11-12).

When we read Proverbs 3, we find that these verses are actually the conclusion to the argument put forth up to this point in the chapter. The chapter begins with a father’s exhortation to his son(s) regarding his instruction about wisdom:

      1 My child, do not forget my teaching,

      but let your heart keep my commandments,

      2 for they will provide a long and full life,

      and they will add well-being to you (Proverbs 3:1-2, emphasis mine).

It soon becomes evident that the father’s instruction is an exhortation to trust God:

      5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart,

      and do not rely on your own understanding.

      6 Acknowledge him in all your ways,

      and he will make your paths straight (Proverbs 3:5-6).

And when we come to verses 11 and 12, the conclusion to this section, we find that the father’s dealings with his son are closely related to God’s dealings with His children as sons. I believe our author has taken all this in and now exhorts us as a father to endure suffering as divine discipline. That is exactly what he will say in verse 7:

Endure your suffering as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? (Hebrews 12:7, emphasis mine)4

These Hebrew saints had surely forgotten that suffering is God’s way of disciplining His children as sons. They had forgotten that Asaph’s suffering drew him nearer to God, while the prosperity of the wicked only made them more arrogant in their sins (Psalm 73). They did not remember that Job was the best example of a godly man that could be pointed out to Satan. In the end, Job’s afflictions brought him to a better understanding of God, and of himself, and thus he matured greatly in his faith.

They had apparently forgotten these words in Deuteronomy:

1 You must keep carefully all these commandments I am giving you today so that you may live, increase in number, and go in and occupy the land that the Lord promised to your ancestors. 2 Remember the whole way by which he has brought you these forty years through the desert so that he might, by humbling you, test you to see if you have it within you to keep his commandments or not. 3 So he humbled you by making you hungry and then feeding you with unfamiliar manna. He did this to teach you that humankind cannot live by bread alone, but also by everything that comes from the Lord’s mouth. 4 Your clothing did not wear out nor did your feet swell all these forty years. 5 Be keenly aware that just as a parent disciplines his child, the Lord your God disciplines you (Deuteronomy 8:1-5, emphasis mine).

There is something that we dare not miss in what the Scriptures tell us about discipline, both human and divine. As we can see from Proverbs and the passage in Deuteronomy 8 (not to overlook many others), the word “discipline” means much more than merely to punish. In fact, in its most severe form, discipline should not be viewed as punishment, but rather as correction. The goal is to encourage the foolish or the disobedient to trust God and to obey Him. In his excellent (albeit brief) commentary on Proverbs, Derek Kidner has this to say about the Hebrew word found often in Proverbs, and particularly in the passage cited by the author to the Hebrews:

Instruction, or training . . ., a far from static term, is the first synonym, giving notice at once that wisdom will be hard-won, a quality of character as much as of mind. The word has usually (not invariably – see e.g. 4:1) a note of sternness, ranging from warning (e.g. 24:32) to chastening (whether by the Lord, 3:11, or by the rod, 23:13; cf. the extreme instance: Is. 43:5). Its frequent companion is correction, or reproof . . ., a noun whose derivation emphasizes verbal rather than physical persuasion: an appeal to reason and conscience (cf. Is. 1:18; cf. Jn. 16:8 . . .). The two terms together can be summed up as discipline; they give the reminder that wisdom is not to be had through extra-mural study: it is for disciples only.5

Thus, discipline will likely involve verbal instruction, perhaps painful correction, and likely some form of suffering or deprivation of something desired. For the Israelites, “discipline” included allowing them to be hungry, or to thirst, so that they could witness God’s faithfulness in providing for their needs. In our text in Hebrews, the author wants us to know several important truths about suffering:

Suffering comes ultimately from the hand of God, for our good.

Suffering in the life of the Christian should thus be viewed as divine discipline.

Suffering should be patiently endured as something that is designed to produce righteousness.

Suffering, because it is divine discipline, should be viewed as an indication of God’s love, and that we are a part of His family.

The discipline we experienced in our human family should be instructive. We should realize that if the discipline administered to us by our (fallible) earthly fathers was beneficial, then surely the discipline administered by our heavenly Father will be infinitely more profitable.

All discipline is painful for the moment, but it produces peace and righteousness which is profitable for eternity. Indeed, as we shall soon be told (in verse 14), without these, no one will see the Lord.

A Call to Action
Hebrews 12:12-17

12 Therefore, strengthen your listless hands and your weak knees,6 13 and make straight paths for your feet,7 so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but be healed. 14 Pursue peace with everyone, and holiness, for without it no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God, that no one be like a bitter root springing up and causing trouble, and through him many become defiled. 16 And see to it that no one becomes an immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that later when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no opportunity for repentance, although he sought the blessing with tears (Hebrews 12:12-17).

There are several texts that relate to the author’s citations above:

      3 Look, you have instructed many;

      you have strengthened feeble hands.

      4 Your words have supported those who stumbled,

      and you have strengthened the knees that gave way (Job 4:3-4).

      1 Let the desert and dry region be happy;

      let the wilderness rejoice and bloom like a lily!

      2 Let it richly bloom;

      let it rejoice and shout with delight!

      It is given the grandeur of Lebanon,

      the splendor of Carmel and Sharon.

      They will see the grandeur of the Lord,

      the splendor of our God.

      3 Strengthen the hands that have gone limp,

      steady the knees that shake!

      4 Tell those who panic,

      “Be strong! Do not fear!

      Look, your God comes to avenge!

      With divine retribution he comes to deliver you.”

      5 Then blind eyes will open,

      deaf ears will hear.

      6 Then the lame will leap like a deer,

      the mute tongue will shout for joy;

      for water will flow in the desert,

      streams in the wilderness.

      7 The dry soil will become a pool of water,

      the parched ground springs of water.

      Where jackals once lived and sprawled out,

      grass, reeds, and papyrus will grow.

      8 A thoroughfare will be there –

      it will be called the Way of Holiness.

      The unclean will not travel on it;

      it is reserved for those authorized to use it –

      fools will not stray into it (Isaiah 35:1-8).

      Make the path for your feet level,

      so that all your ways may be established (Proverbs 4:26).

It seems to me that the author’s exhortation is two-fold. First, I believe that he is exhorting his readers to individually take courage because of the saving work of Christ and because they have been reminded that their troubles come from a loving heavenly Father for their good. The individual application is most evident in Proverbs 4:26. But it should also be observed that in Job 4:3-4 and Isaiah 35:3-4, the exhortation is to encourage and strengthen fellow-Israelites. Knowing that God will bring His people back from captivity to enjoy His promised blessings in their land, and that God will pour out His wrath on those who have oppressed them, the people of God are to take courage, and they are to encourage one another.

I believe that the individual and the corporate applications are inter-related. Consider Paul’s words to the Corinthians about their suffering:

3 Blessed is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles so that we may be able to comfort those experiencing any trouble with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For just as the sufferings of Christ overflow toward us, so also our comfort through Christ overflows to you (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).

As our loving Father, God makes us stronger through our afflictions, not only for our benefit, but for us to be a blessing to others. Having been strengthened by God’s grace through our afflictions, we can now strengthen and encourage those who undergo similar adversity. This is entirely consistent with what we have already found in chapter 10:

23 And let us hold unwaveringly to the hope that we confess, for the one who made the promise is trustworthy. 24 And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works, 25 not abandoning our own meetings, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and even more so because you see the day drawing near (Hebrews 10:23-25).

The corporate application becomes even more evident in verses 14-17:

14 Pursue peace with everyone, and holiness, for without it no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God, that no one be like a bitter root springing up and causing trouble, and through him many become defiled. 16 And see to it that no one becomes an immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that later when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no opportunity for repentance, although he sought the blessing with tears (Hebrews 12:14-17).

The author exhorts his readers to pursue both peace and holiness (or sanctification), with the added comment that without which no one will see the Lord. Because of the great diversity (by design) that God has given His church, there is much opportunity for differences and divisions. Nevertheless, we were saved into one body, and the sacrifice of Christ produced not only forgiveness, but peace:

11 Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh – who are called “uncircumcision” by the so-called “circumcision” that is performed on the body by human hands – 12 that you were at that time without the Messiah, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who used to be far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace, the one who made both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility, 15 when he nullified in his flesh the law of commandments in decrees. He did this to create in himself one new man out of two, thus making peace, 16 and to reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by which the hostility has been killed. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near (Ephesians 2:11-17).

There are a number of exhortations to pursue both peace and holiness (or sanctification):

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil; consider what is good before all people. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people. 19 Do not avenge yourselves, dear friends, but give place to God’s wrath, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord (Romans 12:17-19).

Now may the God of peace himself make you completely holy and may your spirit and soul and body be kept entirely blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:23).

But keep away from youthful passions, and pursue righteousness, faithfulness, love, and peace, in company with others who call on the Lord from a pure heart (2 Timothy 2:22).

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct he should show his works done in the gentleness that wisdom brings. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfishness in your hearts, do not boast and tell lies against the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come from above but is earthly, natural, demonic. 16 For where there is jealousy and selfishness, there is disorder and every evil practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, accommodating, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial, and not hypocritical. 18 And the fruit that consists of righteousness is planted in peace among those who make peace (James 3:13-18).

10 For

        the one who wants to love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from uttering deceit.

      11 And he must turn away from evil and do good;

      he must seek peace and pursue it.

      12 For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous and his ears are open to their prayer.

      But the Lord’s face is against those who do evil (1 Peter 3:10-12).

13 But, according to his promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness truly resides. 14 Therefore, dear friends, since you are waiting for these things, strive to be found at peace, without spot or blemish, when you come into his presence (2 Peter 3:13-14).

The pursuit of peace and sanctification is not optional; it is mandatory. Holiness is not something we can set aside in order to pursue our own pleasures. Christ not only died to forgive our sins; He died to bring peace and to make us holy. For us to live as though peace and holiness were optional would be to misread the Bible. I believe that our author will take up this matter in verses 18 and following in our chapter.

Our author is telling his readers that they are their brother’s keeper. I use the term “brother” in its broadest sense because I believe that this includes both believers and unbelievers who are in the church. The one who is like a “bitter root” who “springs up and causes trouble” might be a true believer, but it seems more as though here it may be an unbeliever. The “poisonous root” in Deuteronomy 29:18 is the person who introduces others to idol worship. And if there is any doubt that some of those in the church may be unbelievers who corrupt others, the author turns to Esau as an example of an “immoral and godless person” in verses 16 and 17.

16 And see to it that no one becomes an immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that later when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no opportunity for repentance, although he sought the blessing with tears (Hebrews 12:16-17).

At first I was puzzled as to why the author would choose Esau of all people as an example, but upon further reflection, I believe I can now understand his reasons. So, why choose Esau?

First, we should assume that nearly every church has at least one Esau in their midst. He was a descendant of Abraham (and Isaac, of course). He was thus living in close proximity to those whom God would favor with the blessings promised Abraham and his descendants. But in the end, living in close proximity to God’s blessings is not the same as entering into them. Every church should be alert to the possibility that some who worship among them have never truly come to faith. I believe that the author is not merely warning the Hebrews about such people, but is exhorting the church to seek to win them to faith.

Second, Esau’s sins are typical of the sins of an unbeliever, and in particular they are typical of our culture. Esau traded his birthright for a bowl of stew. In today’s language, we might say that he traded God’s blessings for a Big Mac, or heaven for a Happy Meal. Esau is a man who forsakes eternal blessings for momentary pleasure. In this sense, he is the exact opposite of Moses, and of those listed in the hall of faith in chapter 11:

8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place he would later receive as an inheritance, and he went out without understanding where he was going. 9 By faith he lived as a foreigner in the promised land as though it were a foreign country, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, who were fellow heirs of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with firm foundations, whose architect and builder is God (Hebrews 11:8-10).

24 By faith, when he grew up, Moses refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, 25 choosing rather to be ill-treated with the people of God than to enjoy sin’s fleeting pleasure. 26 He regarded abuse suffered for Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for his eyes were fixed on the reward (Hebrews 11:24-26; see also 11:13-16).

Our culture either denies or ignores the fact that all men will rise from the dead to give account for their sins, as Jesus and as Hebrews teaches:

28 “Do not be amazed at this, because a time is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29 and will come out – the ones who have done what is good to the resurrection resulting in life, and the ones who have done what is evil to the resurrection resulting in condemnation” (John 5:28-29).

And just as people are appointed to die once, and then to face judgment (Hebrews 9:27).

But in our world, the motto is, “If it feels good, do it!” Or, “You only go around once, so you’d better grab all the gusto you can get.” Paul puts it this way:

If from a human point of view I fought with wild beasts at Ephesus, what did it benefit me? If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die (1 Corinthians 15:32).

Satan uses momentary pleasures to entice men and women to follow the path that leads to death:

      21 She persuaded him with persuasive words;

      with her smooth talk she compelled him.

      22 Suddenly he went after her

      like an ox that goes to the slaughter,

      like a stag prancing into a trapper’s snare

      23 till an arrow pierces his liver –

      like a bird hurrying into a trap,

      and he does not know that it will cost him his life (Proverbs 7:21-23).

Some are troubled by the fact that Esau is called an immoral man here, when there are no clear indications of this in the Old Testament. I don’t find it troubling at all. Any man who puts immediate pleasure ahead of eternal blessings is headed for trouble. If Esau would trade his birthright for a single meal, why would he not trade eternal blessings for a moment of passion? And let us not forget that Esau married Canaanite women who were readily available, rather than to marry a wife from distant Mesopotamia.8

Third, Esau’s sin is typical of the sin some of the Hebrews were considering. Esau was a man who was born into the Hebrew community to a father who was heir to the covenant promises God made to Abraham. He personally benefited from the blessings which God poured out on Isaac. And yet as close as he was to people of faith, he did not enter into this faith. Instead, he considered his birthright of little value or significance, and so he rejected it for a moment’s pleasure at the dinner table.

Is this not the danger that faced the Hebrews to whom this great epistle is addressed? As Jews, they were so blessed:

1 I am telling the truth in Christ (I am not lying!), for my conscience assures me in the Holy Spirit – 2 I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed – cut off from Christ – for the sake of my people, my fellow countrymen, 4 who are Israelites. To them belong the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises. 5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from them, by human descent, came the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever! Amen (Romans 9:1-5).

But in spite of these blessings, many of the Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah, and like Esau, exchanged God’s eternal blessings for their hope of an immediate, earthly kingdom.

When our author speaks of Esau and his unbelief, he is speaking directly to his audience, some of whom had not accepted Jesus, and some of whom were toying with the possibility of forsaking the faith in order to escape from the suffering that loomed on the horizon. Esau was just the person to use as an example of a “bitter root.” Going back to Judaism was just like Esau trading off his birthright. And, as our author points out, there is a point of no return, a point at which one cannot reverse the decision they have made. Hell may very well be something like Esau’s remorse. He was sorry, even tearful, that he had forsaken God’s blessings; but it was now too late to reverse his decision. The Gentiles are to Jewish unbelievers what Jacob was to Esau.

Conclusion

Let me begin by summarizing our text. As we conclude this lesson, let me summarize the chapter by focusing your attention on the matter of discipline.

1. Self-discipline is necessary to finish the race (Hebrews 12:1-3).

2. Adversity in the life of the Christian is really divine discipline, and such discipline is proof of our
sonship, and of God’s love and care for us (Hebrews 12:4-11).

3. Discipline is the ongoing work of the church (Hebrews 12:12-17; cf. also 1 Thessalonians 5:14).

We need to see suffering for what it really is, and what it is not. The first generation of Israelites to leave Egypt interpreted their difficulties as God’s apathy, His inability to help, or His sinister desire to kill them in the wilderness. This is why they rebelled against God and failed to enter into the rest He had promised. God did bring adversity into the lives of the Israelites, but it was not to destroy them; rather it was to reveal their need for faith. The problem of pain was one that Asaph had to grapple with in Psalm 73, and he came to see that his affliction was really a gift from God, one that caused him to draw near to Him, which is the ultimate good. Likewise, God brought adversity into Job’s life, and this eventually resulted in his spiritual growth.

Suffering, for the Christian, is not to be viewed as some kind of accident, or as an oversight on God’s part. Suffering is God’s “school of discipline” by which He enhances our faith and draws us nearer to Him. Rather than causing us to question God’s existence, or His goodness, it assures us that He is our Father, and we are His sons and daughters.

Our text exposes the error commonly taught by the “health and wealth prosperity preachers.” They would have us think that God is waiting in heaven to shower us with earthly blessings: popularity, prosperity, physical health and so much more – if we only have sufficient faith (which we demonstrate by sending what we now have to them). I have yet to hear a prosperity preacher teach this passage in Hebrews, because they don’t want to tell folks that difficult times are here and that harder times are coming. People don’t pay to listen to preachers who tell us to deny ourselves, to take up our cross, and to follow Jesus. If we are truly people of faith, then we will be like the Old Testament saints. We will endure present adversity with patience, certain that God’s blessings will come to us (most likely) after we die.

Strange as it may seem, I believe that our text has much to teach us about parenting and child training.  Our author, much like we find in the Book of Proverbs, links earthly parenting with God’s parenting His children as their heavenly Father.  In our text, he compares earthly fathers to God, who deals with us as our Father.  Earthly fathers “discipline” their sons.  It is often painful, but in the end, it points their children toward God, and in the direction of godly character. Like earthly fathers, God deals with us as our Father.  This, too, is painful, but it produces the fruit of righteousness.  While earthly fathers are human and their discipline is flawed, it still produces good things in the life of the child.  God’s discipline is perfect.

 So, if God’s discipline can be compared to the discipline of our earthly fathers, then shouldn’t Christian fathers pattern their child training after God’s discipline? If God’s discipline is sometimes painful (the woodshed we talked about at the beginning of this message), then shouldn’t our discipline sometimes be painful as well? If God’s discipline is sometimes like a spanking, shouldn’t some of our discipline actually be a spanking? This is not something new and novel; it is what we are clearly taught in the Book of Proverbs. If God withholds certain things from His children for their good, then how is it that many Christian parents refuse to withhold anything from their children? Why do we “indulge” our children when God does not “indulge” us in the same way?

It seems to me that the ultimate act of discipline these days is the “time out.” We put a child in a chair and make them stay there for a period of time, as though that will teach them important life lessons. As some of my fellow-believers pointed out to me after I preached this message, God did have His own kind of “time out.” Jonah had his three-day “time out” in the belly of the great fish (and, incidentally, it didn’t really change Jonah’s heart, as we find in the Book of Jonah, chapter 4). The first generation of Israelites had a forty-year time out, but this did not really change them either. The Jews had a big “time out” in Babylon, and thanks to God, it did bear some fruit. Church discipline is a kind of “time-out,” but recognize that this kind of “time out” involved turning one over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that the spirit might come to repentance.9 One might even view hell as a kind of eternal “time out.”

My point is not to send you home to immediately paddle your children. My point is that our discipline is patterned more after our culture than after our heavenly Father. Our text should not only change the way we think about our sufferings; it should also change the way we think about our parenting. Our parenting should seek to expose our children’s misbehavior as sin, and we should in our discipline reflect how seriously God takes sin. Divine discipline is much more than some kind of heavenly paddle, but it is often painful, prompting us to pay closer attention to what God has said in His Word.

So I leave you with these questions:

1. Does our discipline take sin as seriously as God does?

2. Does our earthly discipline seek to expose sin and then to seek God’s solution for sin in Jesus?

3. Do we take our responsibility seriously so far as it concerns discipline in the church? Are we seeking to identify and evangelize the lost who are among us? Do we actively seek to know one another well enough to recognize weaknesses and then seek to encourage faith and perseverance?

Last of all, a word on the resurrection (since this message happens to fall on Resurrection Sunday). This message may not sound much like an Easter message, but the subject of the resurrection is very important in the Book of Hebrews. For example, the resurrection is central to the faith of the Old Testament saints: 

17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac. He had received the promises, yet he was ready to offer up his only son. 18 God had told him, “Through Isaac descendants will carry on your name,” 19 and he reasoned that God could even raise him from the dead, and in a sense he received him back from there (Hebrews 11:17-19; see also 6:1-2; 11:35).

The hope of every Old Testament saint rested on the resurrection of Jesus, and thus the resurrection of every believer to their promised inheritance. 

The resurrection is not the central thrust of our text, or even of chapter 12, though it was central to chapter 11. The cross of Calvary is the measure of God’s hatred of sin and of its penalty. The suffering that Jesus endured on the cross of Calvary is the measure of our sins. The resurrection is the measure of God’s acceptance of the sacrifice Jesus made on behalf of sinners. The resurrection proves that God was satisfied with the High Priestly sacrifice of Jesus. And finally, the resurrection is the validation of all of the claims of our Lord Jesus. Jesus staked His teaching and earthly ministry on the fact that He would rise from the dead:

38 Then some of the experts in the law along with some Pharisees answered him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” 39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For just as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights (Matthew 12:38-40).

I fear that for some (especially unbelievers) the resurrection (Easter) is the opportunity to focus on something other than our Lord’s infinite suffering at Calvary.  Easter does not in any way diminish the magnitude of Christ’s work on the cross.  The resurrection is God’s exclamation point on Christ’s atoning, sacrificial death!  Have you acknowledged the magnitude of your sins, and that hell is the punishment God has determined as appropriate?  Have you trusted in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus in your place, so that you may be delivered from divine judgment, and have eternal life?  That is what the Book of Hebrews is all about.


1 Copyright © 2009 by Robert L. Deffinbaugh. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 31 in the series, Near to the Heart of God – A Study of the Book of Hebrews, prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on April 12, 2009. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit.

2 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: net.bible.org

3 As did Asaph in Psalm 73.

4 I realize that other translations handle this verse in different ways, but I think the NET Bible translators got it right.

5 Derek Kidner, The Proverbs (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1964), p. 36.

6 See Isaiah 35:3.

7 See Proverbs 4:26.

8 See Genesis 24:1-9; 26:34-35. It is interesting to note that Genesis 26:34-35 comes immediately before the account of Isaac giving his blessing to Jacob, thinking he was Esau.

9 See 1 Corinthians 5:1-8.

Related Topics: Discipline, Hamartiology (Sin), Love