Enduring God's Discipline (Hebrews 12:1-11)
Many of us have suffered in the past couple years. The pandemic, physical and mental health, economic struggles, marriage and family strife, persecution, friends abandoning us, and more. In these times we want to know what the Scriptures say to us. How ought we to think of these various trials? How can we endure? What are they for?
The hearers of Hebrews knew suffering and they were at a crossroads. Years ago when they began to follow Jesus they suffered great losses. They were publicly criticized and afflicted. Some were thrown in prison, but these Christians took on their shame and showed compassion to them. Their property had been plundered, but they joyfully accepted this knowing they had a better possession waiting for them. The fruit of their transformation had been evident.
But now, it appears decades have passed and they continued to bear the shame of following Jesus. They were now in danger of becoming like the Israelites who left Egypt and struggled to endure in the desert on the way to the promised land. Their hope and energy began to fade. They became sluggish, distracted, and dull of hearing. Rest in the heavenly promised land was hard to see. Was it really worth it? Like Israel in the past, the pleasures of Egypt in their old life behind them was appealing. The danger of their apathy becoming bitterness and unbelief was serious. How could they avoid falling in the wilderness like those who left Egypt and persevere to the end? How can we endure through various trials God brings our way? Let's consider two exhortations from Hebrews 12:1-11.
1. Consider Jesus (12:1-4)
Verse 2: “For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” We often emphasize the pain of the cross, but Scripture emphasizes the shame of the cross. It was painful, but it was also humiliating and embarrassing. He was seen as a fraud and lawbreaker. There is a certain amount of comfort if it is clear to us and to everyone else that we are suffering in our righteousness. But for Jesus, that was not evident. Everyone thought he was getting justice. And yet Jesus was able to despise that shame. Why? The joy before him and the throne. He knew the only way to joyful throne was the shameful cross.
The problem with our suffering is that it can feel very random, chaotic, and meaningless. Like being lost in a storm at sea, you feel it may never end. But stories of other’s suffering can really nourish us. They suddenly give us a compass — clarifying and organizing our sense of the chaos. We suddenly see, “Oh, this is where we are. This is where we’re going. We can do this.” Now, it requires the right kind of story. You won’t be helped if you’re climbing Mount Everest and I tell you about the time I climbed Enchanted Rock. But if I tell you I have also climbed Mount Everest and how I endured though the conditions were very rough, you’ll gain strength.
Jesus’ story is that kind of story. It’s a little hard because we’re at the end of a letter, but the point is that we can look to the same thing — the joy and the throne — we are on the same difficult trek up Mount Everest — or rather, up to reign with Jesus in the heavenly Jerusalem. Earlier in Hebrews 2 the writer spoke of how Jesus is not merely being glorified to the throne by himself — he’s leading many sons to glory. Notice Hebrews 2:9-10. When we see the word “glory” we may think of brilliance, but here and many other places “glory” refers to an exalted status. Just before this he quoted Psalm 8 which praises God for setting lowly humans over all the works of his hands. Here he points to Jesus as the first human who has been exalted to this status. The first. He’s bringing many sons to glory. He’s the pioneer, leader, trail-blazer of our salvation. And salvation here is not only about the sin and death we’ve been saved from, but the joy and the throne we’re being saved to.
The point is this: the Scriptures always promised that God’s chosen humans — not angels — would reign over the future world with him — but stories, prophecies, and Psalms in the Scriptures always demonstrated that suffering came before that glorified status. Think of Joseph, David, and others — suffering was their path to glory. We are to consider Jesus because he has pioneered and perfected this path of faith in suffering to glory that we are on.
And back in Hebrews 12, notice verse 4: Jesus shed blood and was killed on the path to the joyful throne, but these Christians, despite all they’d been through, they hadn’t even endured that. Note that persecution can at times be more social and economic than it is violent. This is not to diminish their pain but to say I know how bad it is, but take courage because he too has walked the Way to reign on Mount Zion in even worse conditions than ours and he was able to endure and despise the shame — the embarrassment of appearing like a sinner abandoned by God — by looking to the same joy and throne we have to look forward to.
Christians, in our suffering, let’s consider Jesus who is seated at the right hand of God. We may appear to the world like outcasts, but so was he. Friends may leave us, but they did with him. Our health, family, or economic situation may make it feel as though we are abandoned by God, but he suffered that pain too. Suffering and self-sacrifice is the Way to reigning atop the heavenly Jerusalem in the future world, it is the way to glory. Joseph had to be falsely accused and sit in a prison before reigning over Egypt. David had to flee Saul’s attacks in exile before taking the throne. Jesus had to go to the cross to have the crown. And we must too. “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.” (Rev. 3:21 ESV) Despise whatever cold winds that blow on the path — the nails and the naked shame — they are vehicles to the throne. There are brighter days ahead. Joy will come one day. We will dwell in the house of the Lord, but we must walk with Jesus through the valley of the shadow of death.
2. Receive the Father’s Discipline (12:5-11)
He refers to their suffering as the discipline of the Lord. He says God is treating us as sons and that he disciplines the one he loves! I read that and I think this cannot be so. He disciplines those he hates, right? No, it’s discipline. And, one challenge here is I read that word “discipline” and I immediately think “spanking.” But that’s not the point here, and that actually reveals my inexperience as a parent. Spanking may be one tool a father uses to discipline a child, but it the idea of discipline is much larger — it’s the practice of training our children to do what is right, not only spanking them when they do disobey.
In fact, here, there is no mention of disobedience at all. Don’t get me wrong — God could punish us because he loves us for our good. But this is not punishment. This is — as verse 11 says — training to bear righteous fruit. As David pointed out Wednesday, this is one learning we can gather from Job. He did not suffer because of any unrighteousness; God emphasizes that he’s blameless. And yet, towards the end of the book, it is apparent that the suffering was an opportunity for Job to be perfected still more. And the same is true with Jesus, though he was sinless, he learned obedience by what he suffered. As John rightly reminds us: there’s more to perfection than being sinless.
Here’s the point. We may often wonder why we have to endure the difficulty, and in verse 7 the writer says why: it is for discipline. Ashley and I have joked a number of times when we have encountered various difficulties — “Alright God, we remembered to pray to you when suffered, we know you’re the great sustainer, so we’ve been tested and learned our lesson. You can take it away now.” But this is immature thinking: God is disciplining and training us, and this is not merely a lesson we can learn in our brains by reading, this is training we can only have by walking through the valley of the shadow of death. It is for discipline that we must endure.
Kids, I wish I would have understood this earlier in life. Our parents and our heavenly Father are trying to do a lot more than correct us from evil. They’re trying to perfect us in the way of knowledge and wisdom and righteousness. They don’t want us to merely be able to walk without falling, they want us to be able to run and win the race. And parents, that brings out another difficult thing that even we have to learn: there is only so much we can teach them with words, God will ensure they walk through seasons of grief because learning and discipline is more than oral, it’s walked and lived. If you have ever wondered with me,“Why don’t you take it away? Why must we endure?” The reply here is: for discipline.
Now, we might think, “You know, I was just fine before, what’s the worst that could happen if I didn’t have to suffer this?” And he gives two answers.
#1 Verse 8: if we aren’t disciplined, we are illegitimate children, not sons and daughters. I don’t train the kids across the street because they aren’t mine. If you have time later, read Hebrews 1 and Romans 8 and notice how significant it is to be called God’s Son and sons. I often read about being God’s son as a term of endearment — and it absolutely is. But in Scripture the Son and sons of God are those who reign with God because, when you are the son of a king, you will get the crown. Suffering discipline is again not the sign God is ready to banish us to the dust, it is the sign that we are his children and he’s preparing us for the throne.
#2 Verses 10-11: if we aren’t disciplined, we won’t share in his holiness and we won’t have a yield of the peaceful fruit of righteousness. Who wants to merely be sinless, we all want to be very fruitful for God. Robyn has reminded us often recently that there is simply no real growth without real difficulty and pain. As Jesus looked to the other joy and the throne before him in order to despise the shame and endure hostility, we need to look to the fruit that will be born. We’ll be more loving, joyous, good, kind, self-controlled people because of this.
This is why it was fitting that God made Jesus the pioneer of our salvation perfect through suffering. He’s travelled the difficult Way to perfection, to sonship, to the throne on the heavenly Jerusalem. The meek will inherit the earth, but we have to be the blessed who suffer persecution if we are going to become the meek who receive this heavenly reward.
If you are tired and feeling that if God were present it wouldn’t be so unpleasant, remember verse 11. For the moment, all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant. It feels messed up, but if it’s painful, that’s our sign that God is present to train us. Let’s be patient: later discipline yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. It takes time. Dig in and accept suffering. We’ll see the good later.
Two Concluding Reminders
1. When you suffer, let the witnesses remind you of our reward. Not only will we see fruit later, we’ll also receive a reward later. As John has been preaching, many witnesses surround us to testify to the importance of faith in suffering. They did not have it easy. All of them at one point could not see and did not know where help would come from and they had to look to the heavenly city they could not see. Some suffered sword and flame, some were tortured and refused to accept release. And as we will soon sing, we know now from Revelation that they stand around the throne and shout joyfully about the victory of the Lamb. They witness to us that faith through the suffering is worth it. They already reign now — that’s why when you go into ancient churches they are painted all over the ceiling — and one day they and we will be raised to reign in an even fuller way.
2. When you suffer, see the Supper as an opportunity to receive nourishment. Jesus suffered in part to identify with us in our suffering. When we suffer, this is the perfect opportunity to stand with him at the cross identify with him — consider Jesus and how we share in his sufferings. And the Lord’s Supper is a great time to reflect in that way and to be nourished as we receive the body and blood of the Lord. We eat his body and blood on the first day of the week — the day he rose — reminding us that the place of his suffering was also the place of his victory. The cross and the empty grave go together. As we eat in faith Jesus reminds us that he abides in us and we in him — and we are strengthened. He suffered and endured and, no matter how bleak it appears, his power and presence will sustain us to the end.
God himself received discipline from God. It was unpleasant, yet he despised the shame and see the fruit! Consider Jesus, our many witnesses to faith, and endure the Father’s discipline.