Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Is God’s Discipline Teaching or Chastisement? (Hebrews 12:3-11)

Something hit me the other day. I was reading through Hebrews and came to the encouragement of 12:1-5. Many saints have gone before us, faithful to the end of their lives, and are watching us as we travel the same road. We are to keep our eyes on Jesus, who also remained faithful through the cross because he saw the joy waiting for him. The audience of Hebrews had not yet become martyrs, and they are God’s sons (“children” if you prefer), and so are not to grow weary or fainthearted.

But at v5b I have always felt a disconnect where it says we will be disciplined, reproved, and chastised by the Lord, as a father disciplines his children. How exactly is punishment for sins an encouragement?

Yes, I understand the argument (as an exegete and a father) that the loving thing to do is confront sin, and the hateful thing to do is ignore it. I understand that eventually children come to “respect” (v 9) their father, perhaps years after the disciplining stops. But still v 5bff. read as a disconnect.

And then this week it hit me. What does “discipline” mean? I had been allowing the “reprove” and “chastise” to control my understanding; I read “discipline” purely in remedial terms. Now certainly this is true. When we sin, our Loving Father shows us our sin and exercises, shall we say, corrective discipline. To do otherwise would not be love. But is this all that “discipline” means? Does this passage apply only to God’s children when we sin?

Semantic range to the rescue! “Discipline” is a translation of paideuo. If you check any reference work (I’ll use my own dictionary), you will see that it has two basic meanings.

(1) It can refer to actual punishment (Lk 23:16, 22). Paul talks about being “beaten but not killed” (2 Cor 6:9). In this sense it is close in meaning to “reproved” (elenxo), which usually carries a strong notion of rebuke (Tit 1:9) or correct (1 Tim 5:20). Likewise, “chastise” (mastigoo) can even mean “to whip.”

(2) But paideuo has another meaning that is not necessarily connected to punishment. It is a standard word for child-rearing (you can see an etymological connection to the word for “child,“ pais) and can refer to simple teaching or educating. The cognate noun paideutes means ”instructor” or “teacher.” BDAG includes a meaning for paideuo as “brought up properly,” although they give no biblical occurrences for this meaning.

What does all this mean? It means that Hebrews 12 does not apply only to those who are sinning. It is a means of encouragement for all followers of Jesus Christ who are going through difficult times (not just sinful times). Just as an earthly father does not always smooth out the road for his children but rather allows them to experience life and grow through those difficult times, so also our heavenly father is at work in all situations, whether they be the consequences of sin or the consequences of life. And as we experience life, we are reminded to not grow weary or fainthearted. The saints who went before us endured the same difficulties and remained faithful. Jesus endured great suffering that had nothing to do with sinful actions he committed, and yet for the joy set before him he endured the cross.

This is a personal blog for me. I am coming out of a difficult year that resulted from great sin done against me and my family. At times we cried out, “Where are you God? Do you see? Do you care?” We always knew that the answers were, “I am here. Yes I see. You know I care.” But there was so much we did not understand. And it hurt. We knew that God was using this difficult season to mold all of us into the image of his Son, from one degree of glory to another. But it still hurt, and at times we wondered if it was really worth the pain.

But we are being “disciplined,” not in the sense of being punished for sin but in the sense of God allowing life to mold and shape us, to teach us about his love as our heavenly father, and to call us to faithfulness in the midst of life. So many have gone before us, men and women who have experienced great pain not because they sinned but because they were called to be “Christ with flesh on” in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.

Based on this passage, I think it is at least a possibility that some of them have been watching our lives unfold, cheering us on, understanding our pain and rejoicing in God’s victories in us. But none so much as Jesus. In my struggle, I have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood. But I am a son of the King, my faithful and loving father, who is at work in all the activities of life, teaching me, molding me, and at times chastising me, so that he can work his good in me, and in my family. His good is that I look like his one and only Son, Jesus Christ (Rom 8:29).

May we all be found faithful.


This is indeed an interesting word in the passage.  It makes the whole passage problematic theologically and pastorally.  I struggled with it as well till I read Clayton Croy's book "Endurance in suffering, Hebrews 12:1-13 in its rhetorical, relgious and philosphical context" (Society for NT Studies, Monograph Series 98, Cambridge University Press, 1998). Croy points out the word in this context has more to do with endurance (as in running a race (cf. 12:1).  That was very helpful for me.   Gerald Neufeld