Jesus – The Better Example
and Disciplinary Agent of Faithful Endurance

Hebrews 12:1-13

This is a series of studies that explore the meaning of the Epistle to the Hebrews.

©2003 by James A. Fowler. All rights reserved.

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The extended excursus surveying the highlights of the faithful people of God in the Old Testament (11:1-40) concluded with the assertion of the failure of the old covenant personages to find complete fulfillment of their expectations of faith. “All of these, having received witness through their faith, did not receive what was promised” (11:39). Paul’s continuing discourse to the Jerusalem Christians involves both a continuity of the theme of faithful endurance, as well as a comparative contrast of the superior objective of Christian faith which was stated in the final verse of the foregoing recitation: “God having foreseen something better concerning us, in order that they should not be perfected without us” (11:40).

Continuity is evident because the theme of “faith” is still on Paul’s mind. The litany of the examples of forward-looking, persevering faith among the Old Testament faithful is now capped by the surpassing supremacy of the ultimate expression of faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus is set forth as the One to be viewed (2) and considered (3) as the epitome and ultimate “pioneer and perfecter of faith” (2). The Jewish radicals inciting insurrection against Rome could have cited the faith of the Old Testament faithful, and used such as an incentive to encourage the Jewish Christians to remain true to their Jewish heritage of faith by joining the freedom fighters. But the Jewish restorationists could not and would not have employed Paul’s argument that Jesus Christ was the supreme example and ultimate expression of faith in God. This is Paul’s distinct argument to encourage the Hebrew Christians of Palestine to refrain from joining the Jewish fight against Rome, and instead have faith like that exemplified by Jesus which “endured the hostility” (3) and endured the humiliation” (2) to participate in the exaltation and victory of all that God makes available to humanity in His Son. The culminating capstone of “faith” has been modeled in the life of Jesus Christ, and the Christians of Jerusalem are encouraged to participate in the better provision (11:40) that is the object of Christian faith.

The Jewish faithful of the old covenant “received witness” (11:2,4,5,39) of their faithfulness to God in proceeding forward in accord with the revelation given to them. They remain, Paul states, as a “crowd of witnesses” (1) testifying to the faithfulness of God. The contrast, however, between the faith of the Jewish forefathers and those who follow in the faith of Jesus Christ can be noted in the contrasting pronouns of “they” and “us” in 11:40, and the continuing emphasis on “we” and “us” in 12:1. Transitioning from the Old Testament historical examples (11:1-40), Paul returns to the direct personal encouragement of the Christians in Judea (12:1–13:25) that he had employed earlier (cf. 10:32-39). Paul appeals to the Jerusalem Christians to exercise faith like that of Jesus, who endured (2,3) the hardships to overcome and enact the redemptive victory. Picking up the previous theme of endurance (10:32,36), Paul adds the element of accepting divine discipline (5,6,7,8,10,11) in the process of faithful endurance (7), thus encouraging his embattled Christian brethren in Palestine to see Jesus as “the better example and disciplinary agent of faithful endurance.”

This contextual paragraph (12:1-13) is introductory to the concluding practical section of this epistle (12:1 – 13:23). Precise sectional divisions are difficult to ascertain and are necessarily arbitrary, but we shall divide them as follows:

(1) The inevitable discipline of God (12:1-13)
(2) The unshakable kingdom of God (12:14-29)
(3) The unchanging Christ (13:1-25)

Three subdivisions can be identified in this initial contextual paragraph:

(a) The need to focus on Christ in the midst of exertion unto endurance (1-3).
(b) The inevitable discipline that is part of the process of developing endurance (4-11).
(c) The consequent responsibility for acting in endurance (12,13).

12:1       Connecting with the previous survey (11:1-40), Paul begins with the conjunction, “Consequently” or “therefore,” and emphasizes the “we also,” identifying himself with the Christians in Jerusalem, as contrasted with the Jewish faithful previously cited (11:1-40). The encouragement to endurance is based on the encircling witness of the old covenant faithful, and the stripping off of extraneous entanglements.

Paul ties his Jewish Christian readers to their Jewish heritage by reminding them of their “...having so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us,...” The faithful of old are regarded as presently serving as a quantitative and qualitative “cloud of witnesses.” Both in the Hebrew and Greek languages the word “cloud” was often used as a metaphor for a “crowd” – for a host or multitude of people. The faithful Jewish forebears “received witness” (11:2,4,5,39) of their faithfulness, and are now represented as an encompassing and encircling crowd witnessing the actions of Christians who have the privilege “in Christ” of participating in all that the Jewish believers were expecting in faith. The question might be asked: “Are these prior Jewish faithful circumlocated around the Christians in an historical sense, or in a spiritual and heavenly sense? Both, though the latter better serves the figurative picture that Paul seems to be drawing. The encompassing “crowd of witnesses” has long been regarded as a metaphor for spectators in a stadium, arena or amphitheater observing an athletic race. As “witnesses” in the heavenly grandstands cheering on the contestants, their “witness” may be regarded as both passive observance, as well as active attestation. As prior participants who have gone before and actively persevered in faith, they now observe and testify to the value of the goal, despite the hardship of the race.

Continuing the metaphor of a race, Paul advises, “putting off every weight, and the clinging sin,...”. Athletes needed to “strip off” all that might handicap, impede or hinder their run. The “weight” that had to be “put off” may have been excess body weight, but more likely referred to any excess weight, such as training weights, that would impede the runner. Paul is no doubt using “weight” metaphorically, as did the Greek ethicists, to refer to moral vices. Jesus used similar language: “Be on guard, that your hearts may not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life” (Lk. 21:34). In previous letters Paul had advised the “laying aside” of all “deeds of darkness” (Rom. 13:12), such as “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech” (Col. 3:8). Peter (I Pet. 2:1) and James (James 1:21) used similar language. That Paul had such behavioral encumbrances in mind is fortified by his subsequent reference to “clinging sin.” First century athletes had to strip off their clinging cloaks, robes and togas in order to run freely. Paul is advising the Hebrew Christians to lay aside their clinging sin patterns – the distraction, diversions, preoccupations, and concerns that “wrap up” and hinder Christian progress. More specifically for the Christians of Judea, this may have included the close-fitting pride of Jewish nationalism, wealth and religion, or the binding concern for self-preservation. The common interpretation of this phrase to putting away “besetting sins” (cf. KJV) and personal strongholds of sin is not illegitimate, but the historical context of Paul’s admonition to the Christians in Jerusalem to strip off the excess baggage of closely-held and familiar clinging sin must be the basis of all personal application.

With the incentive of the Jewish forefathers cheering them on, and the laying aside of the impediments of excessive weight and entangling sin, “we should run with endurance the race lying before us,...”, Paul exhorts the Christians in Judea. This is not a forty yard speed sprint, but more like a long-distance, cross-country marathon that requires stamina, endurance, persistence and perseverance. As noted earlier (10:36), the Greek word for “endurance” is hupomene, meaning “to abide under,” implying a need to abide under the pain, the exhaustion, and the mental discouragement in maintaining the pace of a faithful Christian life. The race, the course, the contest, the conflict (Greek word agon, the root of the English word “agony”) that confronted the Christians in Jerusalem was no place for foot-dragging sluggishness (cf. 5:11; 6:12), but required the diligent endurance of forward-looking faith. “Run in such a way that you may win” (I Cor. 9:24), Paul advised the Corinthians. “I run in such a way, not without aim” (I Cor. 9:26). “I have finished the course; I have kept the faith” (II Tim. 4:7), Paul explained to Timothy. The agonizing struggle of the course set before the Christians in Jerusalem would require disentangling themselves from much of what they had cloaked themselves in previously, and running with endurance the course of Christian faithfulness.

12:2      The means by which the Christians in Jerusalem would need to run the race of faith would be by “looking away from (everything else) unto Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith,...” The beleaguered Christians in Jerusalem were not to concentrate on their trials or their difficulties. They were not to set their attention on the insurrectionists or the imminent portent of war. These distractions would not facilitate faithfulness. Instead, they were encouraged to focus on Jesus – the ultimate model of faithful endurance. How did Jesus live the life that He lived as man on earth? He did so as a human choosing creature, responding to God the Father in complete receptivity to God’s activity, putting His “trust in Him” (2:13) and allowing God the Father to speak (cf. John 5:30; 8:28; 12:49; 14:10) and act (Jn. 5:19,30; 14:10) at every moment in time through Him. Jesus lived the life that He lived by faith. His perfect exercise of faith established Him as “the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” The superiority of Jesus’ faith, compared to the old covenant faithful (11:1-40), is beyond all qualitative comparison. Jesus is the trail-blazer, the pioneer of faith. The Greek word archegon (cf. 2:10) can mean “founder, originator, initiator, leader,” etc. – the principal or chief who leads the way. Jesus is the archetype of Christian faith. He is the One who perfected the “obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26) by being “obedient unto death” (Phil. 2:8), and was perfected thereby (2:10; 5:9; 7:28). He took human faith to the end objective (Greek word teleiotes, derived from telos, meaning “end”) that God intended, finishing (Jn. 17:4; 19:30), accomplishing and achieving God’s redemptive and restorative purpose. The believers in Jerusalem were encouraged to focus on the faith exemplified by Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of faith,” the initiator and implementer of faith, the founder and finisher of faith, the archetype and achiever of faith. Jesus is indeed the “faithful witness” (Rev. 1:5) revealing God’s intent for man to respond and choose dependence upon Him. Of course, the historical Jesus is also the living Lord Jesus of the Spirit, and the call to focus on Jesus is not just a call to view Jesus’ faith as an historical example, but is inclusive of our gazing on the risen and ascended Christ who empowers Christian action (Jn. 15:5) and perfects us (cf. Phil. 1:6), but the emphasis in this particular context is on Jesus’ historical exhibition of faith, as the subsequent statements indicate. It must also be noted that reference to Jesus as “the author and finisher of faith” does not allow for the Calvinistic concept that faith is given to the Christian or enacted within the Christian by God, for consistent interpretation of Scripture recognizes that faith is man’s response to choose dependency upon and derivation from God in “the receptivity of His activity.”

Paul documents how the historical faith of “the man Christ Jesus” (Acts 2:22; I Tim. 2:5) was the original and ultimate objective of God, by explaining that Jesus, “who for the joy lying before Him endured the cross, despising the shame,...” Was “the joy lying before Him” the memory that Jesus had of the pre-existent bliss and glory of heavenly function? Was “the joy lying before Him” the expectancy of exaltation sitting at the right hand of the throne of God? Was “the joy lying before Him” the incentive of redemptive efficacy that looked forward to the restoration of functional humanity united with Him? Or, since the Greek preposition anti (meaning “against” or “opposed to”) is used, instead of the more common preposition translated “for” or “because of” (Greek gar), could this be a statement of substitution? If he was employing the primary meaning of anti, was Paul indicating that Jesus “instead of, in place of, or against the joy lying before Him” of avoiding the cross (cf. Matt. 26:38,39; Mk. 14:34-36; Lk. 22:42; Heb. 5:7) “did not please Himself” (Rom. 15:3) by seeking the fame and accolades of man in the world’s way of victory? Whether His action was based on a memory, an expectancy, an incentive, or a substitution, Jesus faithfully endured the cross, voluntarily choosing the obedience, “even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8), to effect the “will of God” (Heb. 10:9) and God’s way of victory. This faithful endurance of Jesus, even unto death, was the exemplary model (cf. I Pet. 2:21-23) that Paul wanted his brethren in Judea to focus on, for they could well be required to endure and face death in the near future as the Romans descended upon Palestine.

The particular death that Jesus endured in faith, the horrendous execution of crucifixion, was regarded as especially shameful, degrading and contemptuous. This form of execution was often reserved for slaves, foreigners, and the worst of criminals. The public scorn of crucifixion was regarded as despicable and ignominious by Roman citizens, while the Jews regarded such a form of death as a curse (Gal. 3:13; Deut. 21:23). Jesus, however, was willing to submit to such humiliation (Phil. 2:8), “despising the shame,” disdaining the disgrace of such a death, for He knew in faith that this was God’s means of victory over sin and death. Paul is reminding his readers of how Jesus “despised the shame” in the midst of faith endurance that led to execution, because they, too, were likely being subjected to public shame for not being true and loyal to their Jewish heritage, and joining the revolt against the Romans. In the midst of such scorn and contempt, the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem needed to disregard the shame and endure in their faith in Jesus Christ, perhaps unto death. They needed a forward-looking faith that looked beyond the present humiliation to the heavenly exaltation.

The humiliating death of Jesus Christ on the cross led to His being highly exalted (cf. Phil. 2:8-11) as the risen and ascended Lord and Saviour. Having endured the cross, Jesus “has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Paul had used this theme of the enthronement of the exalted Son of God numerous times in this epistle (1:3,13; 8:1; 10:12). The seated posture represents the completion of his work. He “accomplished the work which the Father gave Him to do” (Jn. 17:4), having exclaimed from the cross, “It is finished!” (Jn. 19:30). Permanent and eternal victory was achieved in Jesus submitting to death in order to overcome “the one having the power of death, that is, the devil” (2:14). Jesus has assumed His exalted place (7:26) of royal honor and authority “at the right hand of the throne of God,” having become our High Priestly intercessor (7:25) with “all authority given to Him in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18).

The assaulted Christians in Jerusalem needed to look beyond all the present circumstances and focus on Jesus, the ultimate exemplar of forward-looking faith. They needed to run the race of life with faithful endurance, willing to despise the disgrace and endure even unto death, as Jesus did. Just as Jesus progressed from humiliation to exaltation, Paul encourages these Christians to accept and submit to God’s way of victory, which often means that “the way to win is to lose” (Matt. 10:39; 16:25). What appears to be loss or defeat by the world’s standards is often the means of God’s eternal victory.

12:3      As his readers were in apparent danger of discouragement, disheartenment and despair, Paul encourages his Hebrew brethren to “Consider again the One having endured such hostility under the sinners unto Himself,...” “Take another long look at the enduring faith of Jesus,” Paul is saying. Using a banking term, he encourages his readers to “calculate” and “take inventory” of how Jesus endured such an intensity of dispute (6:16; 7:7), antagonism, cruelty, and violence under the hands of sinners. Who were these “sinners” who mistreated Jesus with hostile intent? For the most part the instigators were His own Jewish people. Jesus had told His disciples that “the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners” (Matt. 26:45; Mk. 14:41) just prior to His arrest by the Jewish chief priests and their henchmen. Who was it that was engaging the Jerusalem Christians in hostile opposition and “conflict of suffering” (10:32-34)? Their own countrymen, the zealots of the Jewish religion, were once again the “sinners” countering and contradicting God’s action in His people. The Christians of Jerusalem needed to see that they were following in the footsteps of their Saviour, and needed to endure such with the same kind of faithfulness as Jesus did.

Although most modern translations indicate that this “hostility under sinners” was “against Himself” as the recipient of the antagonism, some of the oldest Greek manuscripts indicate that the hostility of the sinful persecutors was “against themselves.” In this case, Jesus’ sinful oppressors were acting to their own detriment, ruin and harm, in the ironic situation of self-destruction (cf. Prov. 8:36; Heb. 6:6).

The objective of Paul’s words encouraging the Jerusalem Christians to “run with endurance the race set before them by focusing and reflecting on Jesus” was “in order that you should not grow weary in your souls, being faint.” The course or race (1) of the Christian life requires a certain resolve and stamina to “go the distance.” The terms that Paul employs are words that were used of athletes who collapsed in exhaustion or fatigue and could not finish the contest. Paul did not want the struggling saints in Jerusalem to have a weakened resolve or a breakdown in endurance. Such would indicate that they had “given up,” relapsed, and apostatized. To the Galatians, Paul had written, “Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap, if we do not grow weary” (Gal. 6:9). The apostle John later penned the words of Jesus to the church at Ephesus: “You have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary” (Rev. 2:3). Paul was doing everything he could to coach the Christians in Jerusalem to continue in their faith without fainting.

12:4      Despite their having endured hostile opposition (10:32-34; 13:3), Paul reminds the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, “You have not yet resisted to the point of blood shedding (in your) struggling against sin.” They had resisted the taunts and the ostracism of the Jewish religionists and revolutionaries who regarded them as traitors for having received Jesus as the Messiah, but this resistance was not “until blood.” This phrase could be a metaphor meaning “to the uttermost,” but even so, the ultimate sacrifice would be resistance unto death. Jesus “endured the cross” (2), execution by crucifixion, in His faithful resistance, and the Jerusalem Christians had not yet been called upon to resist to the point of martyrdom. Compared to Jesus, their sufferings were not yet as severe, and Paul is encouraging them to remain faithful in their present situation which involved a lesser degree of hostility than that of Jesus, at least “to this point.” It must not be minimized, however, that they were “struggling against sin.” Some have noted that the athletic metaphor of a race (1-3) seems to have changed to a different kind of contest (1), the resistance and struggling of a pugilistic boxing match (cf. I Cor. 9:26) or a wrestling contest. There is no doubt that the recipients of this letter were involved in the conflict of an antagonistic (the Greek word for “struggling” is antagonizomenoi) fight against determined opponents. Their “struggling against sin” was not so much against personal “clinging sin” (1) as it was against the “hostile sinners” (3), who were of that same category of Jewish religionists who had crucified Jesus.

12:5      In the midst of the onslaught of religious “sinners” (3), while suffering hostility (3) and shame (2), it is often difficult to remember and recognize that God remains in sovereign control of the situation, especially when those causing the pain claim to be serving as God’s instruments. The pain and unpleasantness of the conflict can be so discouraging, distressing, disturbing, and unsettling. There is always a temptation to question why God allows such suffering, hardship and adversity. In theological language, this is the issue of theodicy – the attempt to determine an explanation for evil and suffering. We must avoid a direct attribution of all affliction and adversity upon God, for such can impinge upon His character and be a denial of the fact that God “does not tempt any one” to evil (James 1:13), for He cannot act contrary to who He is – His own Being. Persecution and suffering often have a primary cause in the hearts of, and at the hands of, evil doers and “sinners” (3) who act out of the character of the diabolic Evil One (cf. Jn. 8:44; I Jn. 3:8,12). The same situations of suffering can, however, become positive disciplinary training as God uses them as a means of good in the lives of His people. “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). In God’s sovereignty, those who inflict suffering on His people cannot thwart His purposes. After all that Job had suffered, he confessed, “I know that Thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of Thine can be thwarted” (Job 42:2). “Shall we accept good from God and not accept adversity?” (Job 2:10), asked Job. We must recognize that adversity has a purpose, that there is significance in our sufferings. The unpleasant experiences of our existence are not to be viewed as random events of “bad luck” under which we have the misfortune of being victims. God is a heavenly Father who loves His children, and therefore He does not protect them from all problems, but perfects them in the midst of distressing situations, and brings them through as “overcomers.” This is what Paul was encouraging the Jerusalem Christians to understand.

“Have you forgotten the encouragement He speaks to you as sons?”, Paul asks. Though these words could be an indicative statement of accusation (“You have forgotten...”), they can also be translated as an interrogative question (“Have you forgotten...?”). The latter of these alternatives seems preferable. Paul is asking his readers if they have forgotten the encouraging words of exhortation that God spoke through the wisdom literature of Scripture in Proverbs 3:11,12, which he then quotes. He applies these words directly to the Jewish Christians, indicating that they are addressed “to you as sons.” In so doing, Paul is introducing the filial family relationship which is the context for understanding God’s disciplinary purposes in the unsettling circumstances of life. Christians are “sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26), and the intent of God in Christ is to “bring many sons to glory” (Heb. 2:10). The process of doing so means that God loves us enough to seek our highest good through disciplinary training by His grace.

Quoting from Proverbs 3:11, Paul writes, “MY SON, DO NOT REGARD LIGHTLY THE DISCIPLINE OF THE LORD, NOR FAINT WHEN YOU ARE BEING REPROVED;...”. Paul had cautioned the Christians in Jerusalem against “fainting” (3), and this was undoubtedly the connection in Paul’s mind to the admonition against fainting here in Proverbs 3:11. The book of Proverbs is, in large part, a parental manual advising fathers in the upbringing of their sons, and thus provides a comparative connection to God’s Fatherly concern for His Christian sons. In these particular verses (Prov. 3:11,12), personified Father Wisdom is advising the sons of God not to despise, disregard, or “regard lightly” the Lord’s disciplinary action, by failing to appreciate what God is doing in the circumstances of life. The Jerusalem Christians, in the midst of their persecutive trials, were apparently in danger of “regarding lightly” and failing to appreciate the discipline of the Lord.

When people hear or read the phrase “the discipline of the Lord,” different meanings and connotations come to their minds. Many people equate discipline with punishment. Depending on their own experiences as the recipients of parental discipline, they may view discipline as primarily a punitive process. There are several Greek words for “punishment” (cf. dike, kolazomai, timoreo), but the word “discipline” in these verses should not be interpreted as “punishment.” The fact that the KJV uses the translation of “chastisement” or “chastening,” meaning “to punish, castigate, or censure,” does not facilitate an accurate understanding of Paul’s intent. The word for “discipline” (Greek paideia) in this passage (5-11) is etymologically rooted in the word for “child” (pais) or “little child” (paidion). Discipline is the process of bringing up a child, the nurturing (cf. Eph. 6:4) process of child-training (cf. II Tim. 3:16). This process will involve corrective, instructive, and directive action to bring the child to the maturation of responsible adulthood. The English word “discipline” is derived from the Latin disciplina, meaning “teaching” or “learning.” From the same Latin root of discipulus, meaning “learner” or “follower,” we derive the English word “disciple.” The Lord’s discipline in the new covenant context is the process of developing a disciple of Jesus Christ, the corrective, instructive and directive process of training a “child of God” unto the mature recognition of God’s sovereignty and the faithful expression of His character.

The experiences and trials of life are “common to man” (I Cor. 10:13). We have an extended vocabulary of words to describe these circumstances: problems, difficulties, troubles, tribulations, tragedy, hardships, adversity, affliction, attacks, persecution, pressures, pain, suffering, etc. on and on. Though God is the essential cause of all things as the Sovereign Creator God, He is not the blameworthy cause of evil which is contrary to His character. We cannot, therefore, claim that God purposes, causes, or orchestrates all events, especially such evil-doing as rape, murder, torture, or disease, without impinging on God’s absolute character of goodness. What we can indicate, though, is that God tests (Jn. 6:6; Heb. 11:17) and examines His people in the midst of all situations, employing His corrective, instructive, and directive purposes of discipline, and soliciting us to allow His character of perfect godliness to be manifested in our behavior in response to, and in the midst of, the situation that confronts us. Moses explained to the Israelites that during their forty years of wandering in the wilderness, “The Lord was disciplining you, just as a man disciplines a son” (Deut. 8:5). Eliphas advised Job in the midst of his sufferings, “Do not despise the discipline of the Almighty” (Job 5:17). The Psalmist admits, “It was good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn Thy statutes” (Ps. 119:71). The Lord Jesus Christ “learned obedience” (Heb. 5:8) and was perfected (Heb. 2:10) “through suffering.” In like manner, God’s children are made perfect (cf. Phil. 1:6; Col. 1:28) in the maturation of being “conformed to the image of the Son” (Rom. 8:29). God the Father is committed to the child-training and disciplining that develops persons into the divine intent of evidencing and exhibiting His character in their behavior to the glory of God. This developmental process of “bringing many sons to glory” (Heb. 2:10) may involve,

“if necessary, being distressed by various trials, that the proof of your faith...even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; and...believing in Him, you may rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls.” (I Pet. 1:6-9)

Understanding the positive purpose of divine discipline in this way allows us to avoid “regarding it lightly,” and rather to appreciate and respect what God is doing in the midst of the circumstances of life. Thus we do not “faint,” give up, or relapse into unbelief even when God’s discipline involves the corrective element of exposing our weaknesses, inadequacies and inabilities; of convincing and convicting us of our selfish preoccupation with self-preservation; or of reproving or rebuking us for thinking that we can solve all of our own problems by employing self-discipline and self-control. As the risen Lord Jesus says to the Laodiceans, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; be zealous therefore, and repent” (Rev. 3:19). The reproving action of divine discipline is necessary to negate the selfish tendencies of personal action and reaction in order to allow the positive expression of God’s character in the situation. This corrective discipline of reproof is sometimes represented as the refining and purifying (cf. Ps. 66:10; Isa. 48:10; Mal. 3:3) action of being “tested by fire” (I Pet. 1:7) so that the dross (Isa. 1:25) of imperfections can be removed, and the “gold” of Christ’s character (Job 23:10; I Pet. 1:7) can be exhibited. Corrective reproof is an essential part of being “disciplined by the Lord, that we should not be condemned along with the world” (I Cor. 11:32).

12:6      Paul continues to cite the quotation from Proverbs 3:12 from the Greek Septuagint translation (LXX); “FOR THOSE WHOM THE LORD LOVES HE DISCIPLINES, AND HE SCOURGES EVERY SON WHOM HE RECEIVES.” The motivational context of God’s discipline is always His absolute character of love. “God is love” (I Jn. 4:8,16). God’s love always seeks the highest good of the other. In order to do so, it must often be expressed as “tough love” – love that cares enough to confront. God’s love is not sentimental, indulgent permissiveness that allows us to do as we selfishly please. Neither is His love a heavy-handed coercive force that castigates until we capitulate. God disciplines in love so that His children may become disciples who will “listen under” Him in the dependence of the “obedience of faith.” This often involves the corrective element of exposing our inadequacies and inabilities, and bringing us “to the end of ourselves.” God’s love takes the risk that the individual might blame Him for the problems and pressures, doubt His love, reject Him altogether, and rebel in sinful self-orientation. That is the risk God takes in disciplining those He loves.

Proverbs 3:12 goes on to indicate that “God scourges every son whom He receives.” In the analogy with parental discipline, the word “scourge” often refers to the corporeal discipline of spanking, whipping, or flogging. As the root word of mastigoi is masso, meaning “to squeeze,” a more general interpretation might be that in the midst of His discipline, God often “puts the squeeze on” or “puts the pressure on” those who are His spiritual children. In the new covenant God’s sons are those who have received Jesus Christ and have become “sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26). God has received such persons into Himself, into union with Himself, into a dynamic relationship with Himself as a son in the Family of God. This is not a future reception into heaven, but a present reception into relationalism with the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In the midst of such spiritual relationalism the Persons of the Trinity allow the disciplinary pressures of life to prepare us for the unique expression of divine life and character in us.

The Christians in Jerusalem may have been at their wits end after years of harassment by their Jewish brethren. The pressure to question the Christian hope, to revert to their Jewish religious heritage, and to espouse the cause of the Jewish independence movement was no doubt intense. In the midst of their trials, hardships and adversities they were likely tempted to think that God had abandoned them – that there did not seem to be any future in remaining a minority remnant of believers in the seemingly forsaken Jerusalem outpost of the Christian faith. Paul knew that they needed to be reminded that God loved them and was at work in the midst of their situation to mold them into what He wanted them to be, and to prepare them for what they were to encounter in the days to come.

12:7      Commenting on the meanings of the words from Proverbs, Paul writes, “Endure (in response) to discipline.” The brevity of Paul’s three words in the Greek text allow for different translations and meanings. The verb can be understood as either an indicative statement (“The response to discipline is to endure.”) or as an imperative command (“Endure in response to discipline.”). Another Greek manuscript variation (ei instead of eis) allows for the reading, “If you endure discipline,....” (KJV), but this is not the better attested manuscript reading.

Throughout the epistle Paul has been calling upon the embattled Jerusalem Christians to “endure” (10:36,39; 12:1,2,3), to “abide under” the trials and situations they were encountering. Now, he encourages them not to capitulate, not to “cave in,” not to attempt to escape their problems, but rather to regard their trials as part of God’s child-training process of divine discipline.

“God is dealing with you as with sons,” Paul explains. Then he asks, “For who is a son whom a father does not discipline?” Divine discipline can only be properly understood in the context of relationship. William Lane writes, “There is a necessary and integral relationship between disciplinary sufferings and sonship.”1 “Paternal discipline is an integral part of family life.”2 In the Hebrew culture, fathers were held responsible for parental discipline that led to the child’s respect for and obedience to God. Note these admonitions in the parental manual of the Proverbs:

“He who loves his son disciplines him diligently” (Prov. 13:24)
“Discipline your son while there is still hope.” (Prov. 19:18)
“Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; the rod of discipline will remove it far from him.” (Prov. 22:15)
“Do not hold back discipline from the child.” (Prov. 23:13)
“Correct your son, and he will give you comfort; he will delight your soul.” (Prov. 29:17)

To the Ephesian Christians Paul had advised that the fathers should “bring up their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). Despite Dr. Spock’s disastrous doctrines of permissive parenting that have resulted in “dead-beat dads” who deny and shirk their responsibility of parenting, God has always indicated that responsible fathers will discipline their children. Paul’s argument to the Christians in Jerusalem is that their disciplinary difficulties are proof that God is their Father, and that He is responsibly working in their lives and dealing with them as sons.

12:8      Paul restates his general principle of relational discipline in the hypothetical negative. “But if you are without discipline, of which you have all become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.” The absence of discipline would indicate parental rejection and abandonment. The exercise of parental discipline, however, evidences the legitimacy of relational sonship. “That is why you can correctly surmise that you are legitimate sons of God,” Paul is explaining to his readers in Jerusalem. We have all, in common with all legitimate Christians, become children of God (Jn. 1:12,13), and in the midst of that relationship “have become partakers” and participants who share together in the disciplinary child-training of our loving Father. “As many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God” (Rom. 8:14) The directive discipline of God confirms our relational sonship.

Roman law (unfair as this might be to the unmarried mothers and their children) placed illegitimate children outside of any legal paternal responsibility and protection. Illegitimate children, “bastards” (KJV), were not required to (and usually did not) receive the discipline of the one who fathered them. They were not regarded as real or genuine sons of the one who fathered them – just accidents that occurred along the way, for whom the mothers were henceforth responsible.

Paul’s concern, however, is to cast this rationale of legitimacy and genuineness into the relationalism that a Christian has with God the Father. Christians and non-Christians alike encounter experiential events of trial, adversity and suffering. The unregenerate, who are not “sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26), are unrelated to God (Gal. 4:8; Eph. 2:12;4:18; Col. 1:21), and must face the circumstances of life in a non-relational context that cannot experience and appreciate God’s disciplinary child-training of His spiritual children, though this does not imply that they are outside of His general providential care. The problematic situations of life are often viewed by the unregenerate as irritating and frustrating obstacles which are attacked with blame and anger toward the perpetuators (if there are such, and they can be identified) or toward God. Reacting with such fight (anger, blame), fright (fear, anxiety), and flight (escape, compromise, take the easy way out), those who are non-relational with God seek to regain control of the situation (to whatever extent is possible). The best explanatory “spin” they have for such hardships is that they “build character” and “make one stronger” for dealing with the next difficulty.

Christians, on the other hand, are not exempt from the same kinds of trials and adversities of life. These are “common to man” (I Cor. 10:13). In the relational context of sonship, in connective union with the Son, Jesus Christ, the Christian can view these difficulties from the perspective of God’s loving, disciplinary child-training. Christians take comfort in the knowledge that God is in sovereign control of the entire situation confronting them, as well as their future destiny. Christians are encouraged in the recognition that God is using the circumstances, however difficult and painful, and “causing them to work together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Accepting the sufficiency of His grace in the midst of the situations, Christians can remain faithfully receptive to His activity and endure through the situation to experience God’s outcome. James writes,

“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4)

It is the relational context of God’s corrective, instructive and directive disciplinary action that assures Christians of the legitimacy and genuineness of their relationship with God through Christ. God is a loving Father, who will not reject or abandon His children. Christians must trust God’s ways, even though they may not be able to determine God’s specific purposes and objectives in the particular circumstances of life. “Since the Lord is directing our steps, why try to understand everything that happens along the way?” (Prov. 20:24 -LB). By faith, Christians accept and endure the situations of life, assured that God’s directive discipline evidences the legitimacy of their sonship relationship with God in Christ.

12:9       Continuing to connect physical paternal discipline with divine discipline, Paul writes, “Furthermore, we had fathers of the flesh as disciplinarians, and we respected them,...” Paul presumes that his Jewish Christian readers, with their Hebrew heritage, had natural, human fathers who disciplined them, serving as correctors, instructors, and directors of their lives as children. As a result of such proper parental discipline, children are taught to “honor their father and mother” (Exod. 20:12; Eph. 6:2,3), and to respect and submit to the authority of parents, other leaders, and God. Some have questioned whether Paul’s assumptions of parental discipline were more appropriate to his ancient Hebrew culture than to modern Western culture. Modern psychologies of parenting often oppose many forms of direct discipline of a child on the misguided premises that such methods of child-training result in a self-image of shame, accompanied by a disrespect for parents that blames them for abuse. Granted, there are (and have always been) selfish, irresponsible, unjust, unloving, and abusive parents that are hardly worthy of respect, but the arranged order of the divinely ordained parent/child relationship still demands that “children be obedient to their parents” (Col. 3:20; Eph. 6:1; Prov. 6:20), and respect their parents as the God-ordained means of “training up a child” (Prov. 22:6).

Based on the basic familial principle of children being subject to their parents, Paul then transfers to divine discipline, asking, “...shall we not much more be made subject to the Father of spirits, and we will live?” In that we should have greater respect for God’s authority than for parental authority, and recognize that our spiritual benefit is of higher importance than the physical benefits of child-rearing, Paul challenges the Jerusalem Christians to accept their subjection to divine discipline in the midst of their trials.

Identifying God as “the Father of all spirits” may refer to His spiritual authority over all created beings, angelic and human, who are able to relate to Him on a spiritual level. However, since God is referred to as “the God of the spirits of all flesh” (Numb. 16:22; 27:16), and humanity in particular are those in whom God has “formed their spirit” (Zech. 12:1) and breathed the spirit of His life (Gen. 2:7; Job 33:4), it is more likely that Paul has the divine/human relationship in mind. Even more specifically, the Jerusalem Christians, who have received God’s spiritual life in Christ Jesus, are being encouraged to accept disciplinary subjection under their spiritual Father in order to experience the spiritual life that God intends to its fullest. Jesus said, “I came that you might have life, and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10. In the midst of the pressures and problems of life it is often difficult to see and appreciate the abundant fullness of Christ’s indwelling life and sufficiency, but Paul frames his question in such a way as to expect an affirmative answer: “Yes, we should submit to, and accept being made subject to, our spiritual Father in order to “live by faith” (10:38), both now and forever.”

12:10      The comparison of physical parental discipline and divine discipline continues. “For they (“our fathers of the flesh”) disciplined us for a limited period of time according to what they deemed proper.” The parental discipline of our physical fathers was for a relatively short period of time, until we came of age and achieved adulthood. The Greek text reads “a few days,” figuratively indicating a brief and limited period of time. Our earthly fathers administered their discipline “according to what they deemed proper,” ‘according to their way of thinking,” “as seemed best to them.” Many parents, fully cognizant that they were not “perfect parents,” have found a sense of consolation in these words of Paul. Parental perception and training is fallible – full of uncertainties and often expressing “the deeds of the flesh” (Gal. 5:19-21). Human parents often discipline in exasperated “outbursts of anger,” capricious unfairness, or rejective favoritism. Parents will indeed be held accountable before God for the character expressed in the disciplining of their children, but Paul recognizes that conscientious parents with the best of intentions still have to discipline their children in accord with their best personal discretion, which is still human and finite, rather than divine and infinite. The translation of the Authorized Version (KJV), that parents discipline “after their own pleasure” must not be understood as “for their own amusement.”

Paul draws the contrast to human parenting by writing, “but He” (God the Father) disciplines us (the verb and object are drawn from the previous phrase) “for the ultimate advantage, that we partake of His holiness.” God’s love always seeks our highest good and acts for our eternal benefit and profit. His disciplinary purposes are always directed at the fulfillment of His creative and redemptive objectives that mankind should function by being receptive to the expression of His own glorious character. The holy character of God sets Him apart from all others. Mankind can never “possess” or even “share” the holy character of God. He does not give His glory to another (Isa. 42:8; 48:11). The only means by which we can “be holy as He is holy” (I Pet. 1:15,16) is to receive, partake of, and allow Him to manifest His holy character in our behavior. Such participation in the divine life of the Trinity sanctifies the Christian and sets him apart to function as intended by allowing the holy character of God to be expressed in Christian behavior. This holy disciplinary objective of the Father God supersedes the temporal discretionary discipline of earthly parents for it is directed at the permanent and eternal participatory expression of God’s holy character in humanity.

12:11      Paul’s next words form a truism that may have seemed like an extreme understatement to the beleaguered Christians in Jerusalem. “All discipline for the moment does not seem to be joy, but grief;...” Although this statement is true both of human and divine discipline, it is surely the latter that was on the mind of Paul and his readers. The surface evaluation of what was transpiring in the lives of the Jerusalem saints could not deem their persecution and harassment to be joyful. Discipline usually impinges on our status quo and infringes on our “comfort zone.” The circumstances are often unpleasant, painful, grievous and sorrowful. Such trials are not something we enjoy, but are called to endure. James’ statement, “Consider it all joy when you encounter various trials” (James 1:2) must be interpreted within its context, which is not that we to seek out and enjoy the trials and the discipline, but rather to anticipate joyously the result of God’s perfect and completing (James 1:4) work in our lives.

This result of God’s disciplinary action is what Paul proceeds to refer to: “...but later it (God’s discipline) gives back the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those having been trained through it (God’s discipline).” In contrast to the momentary discomfort of the difficulties, the resultant disciplinary benefits can only be evaluated “later” from the perspective of 20/20 hindsight. God’s disciplinary activity allows the Christian to “partake of His holy character” (10), and it yields “the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” Righteousness, along with holiness (10), is the exclusive character of God. Paul is not referring here to the forensic imputation of justification/righteousness, but to God’s intent to express His character of righteousness in Christian behavior. Such righteousness cannot be generated or produced by man (cf. Isa. 64:6; Phil. 3:9; Gal. 2:21), but is exclusively the result of Jesus Christ, the Righteous One (cf. Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14; I Jn. 2:1) dwelling within the Christian and being allowed to manifest His character fruit (Gal. 5:22,23) in the behavior of the Christian by faith (Phil. 3:9). The Christian bears the fruit of Christ’s character (Jn. 15:1-8), the “fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Phil. 1:11). “Walk as children of light,” Paul advises the Ephesians, “for the fruit of light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth” (Eph. 5:8,9). The resultant harvest of God’s discipling child-training in the trials of life is the “fruit of righteousness” (cf. James 3:18), as Christians participate in the kingdom living of “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).

God’s righteous character expressed in man’s behavior, individually and collectively, is the result of “having been trained through” God’s discipline. Paul returns to the athletic metaphor of the “training exercise” required for victory in the course or context (1) of life. The Greek verb Paul uses for “having been trained” (gumnazo - cf. I Tim. 4:7) is the source of the English words “gymnasium” and “gymnastics.” God’s discipline of the Christian is the “training exercise,” the “time in the gym,” the process that must be endured if we are to be the victors God’s intends us to be. “No pain, no gain” is a common training slogan, but we must remember that we do not seek the pain, and the gain is not something acquired or achieved through self-effort, but the gain of the expression of His godly character in Christian behavior. God puts us through the exercises, and God supplies the results.

12:12      Verses 12 and 13 are transitional. They contain imperative verbs which address a collective responsibility within the Christian community, as is prevalent throughout the remainder of the epistle. At the same time these verses are tied to the foregoing verses by the connective and conclusive conjunction “therefore...” The athletic metaphor of God’s discipline as a “training exercise” seems to be summed up in some final directions about preparing to run the race. “Get ready, get set, go!” For this reason, it seems best to maintain the connection of verses 12 and 13 with 1-11.

“Therefore, flex the hands having become limp and the knees having become loose,...” The imperative verbs indicate a definite sense of responsibility on the part of the Jerusalem Christians, not only to accept God’s discipline, but to ready themselves for the race (1). This preparation will involve flexing and “stretching” limp and listless hands, as well as weak and wobbly knees. These figures of atrophied attitude and droopy discouragement again evidence the apparent sluggishness (5:11; 6:12) of the readers. In accord with the prophet Isaiah, Paul is attempting to “encourage the slack hands and strengthen the tottering knees” (Isa. 35:3) so that “the lame will leap like a deer” (Isa. 35:6) in the fulfillment of the new covenant in Jesus Christ.

12:13     Using another imperative verb, Paul admonishes the Jerusalem Christians to “make straight paths for your feet,...”. In that the shortest distance to the goal is a straight line, Paul encourages his Christian brethren to make straight-forward progress in the Christian race, directly pursuing the goal of God’s intent, the unique teleological objective in their lives. There is no time for mindless meandering or swerving off course. As the proverb says, “Turn not aside to the right hand or to the left, but turn away your foot from an evil way,...and He will make thy ways straight, and will guide your steps in peace” (Prov. 4:26,27 - LXX).

Paul’s objective in admonishing the Christians in Jerusalem to get ready and be prepared is “in order that the lame should not be turned out, but rather be healed.” Who are the “lame” that Paul refers to? Are they particular persons in the Jerusalem fellowship who are gimpy, limpy, crippled or maimed, and not walking very well in their Christian lives? Or, are all the Christians in Jerusalem identified as “lame” due to their “sluggishness” (5:11; 6:12) and tendency to “drift away” (2:1)? Paul is concerned that the lame not be “turned out.” Physically this would mean that the legs of the lame should not be dislocated or “put out of joint,” but Paul’s figurative usage is to dissuade the Jerusalem Christians from “turning out” in apostasy and rejection of Jesus Christ. Paul's other usages of this same Greek verb pertain to those who “turn aside to fruitless discussion” (I Tim. 1:6), “turn aside to myths” (II Tim. 4:4), and “turn aside to follow Satan” (I Tim. 5:15). Paul’s deep concern for his brethren in Jerusalem is that they should not “turn aside” and drop out of the race, but rather be restored to a healthy Christian walk. His desire was for their spiritual healing whereby they would participate in the new covenant realities of the “lame walking” (Matt. 11:5) and “leaping like a deer” (Isa. 35:5) in the joy of reaching the goal of God in their lives.

Concluding remarks:

We must keep in mind the sitz im leben, the “setting in life,” of the Jewish Christians of Judea to whom this letter was written. Having accepted Jesus as the expected Messiah, they were ostracized and persecuted by their Jewish kinsmen. Some of them had experienced the seizure of their property (10:34). Some had been subjected to imprisonment (10:34; 13:3) and mistreatment (13:34), although none had apparently experienced the death of martyrdom (12:4). Their economic suppression was so severe that Paul had sought contributions from among the Gentile Christians for “the poor among the saints in Jerusalem” (Rom. 15:26; I Cor. 16:2,3). Paul himself was constantly “dogged” by the Judaizers from Judea wherever he went, and had asked for prayers that he “might be delivered from those who are disobedient in Judea” (Rom. 15:31).

With the revolutionary uprising against Rome coming to a fever pitch in the seventh decade of the first century, the Judean Christians were subjected to increased pressure to join the cause to oust the Roman oppressors. Christians who would not participate in the insurrection were regarded as unpatriotic traitors unwilling to fight for what the Jewish militants regarded as their God-given right to a Jewish nation-state. They were already regarded as irreligious for refusing to participate in the Jewish temple practices, but when the Christians would not take a stand for restoring the Judaic high priesthood, they were despised as those who had divorced themselves from their Jewish heritage.

The “cost of discipleship” was high for the Christians in Jerusalem when this letter was written. To recognize the divine discipline unto deeper discipleship in the midst of their difficulties was not an easy perception to develop. Yet Paul, who was very familiar “with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties for Christ’s sake” (II Cor. 12:10), having been “afflicted, ...perplexed, ...persecuted, ...struck down, ...and delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake” (II Cor. 12:10), by being “imprisoned, beaten, stoned,” etc. (II Cor. 11:22-27), and while likely still imprisoned in Rome for his Christian faith, writes to encourage the Christians in Judea to endure in their faith. He lifts up Jesus as the prime example of One who endured humiliation (2) and hostility (3) as the “pioneer and perfecter of faith” (2) to experience God’s ultimate exaltation. From the Proverbs, Paul draws the analogy of a father’s relational child-training of his sons, which must be endured to achieve God’s intended results. To view their tribulations as situations that God was using in His disciplining process would not doubt have been difficult for the hard-hit Christians in Jerusalem. The easy way out would have been to seek a way of escape, rather than the endurance of faith – to “drift away” (2:1), to “shrink back” (10:39), to “fall away” (6:6). Paul uses every argument he can think of to encourage his fellow Jewish believers that they have “everything better” in Jesus Christ. Here his argument is that Jesus is “the better example and disciplinary agent of faithful endurance.” This does not diminish the need, however, for responsible action on the part of the Christians in being receptive to God’s grace (15) in the process of sanctification (14) unto holiness (10) and righteousness (11), as Paul will proceed to address.


1      Lane, William L.,Word Biblical Commentary. Hebrews 9-13. Vol. 47B. Dallas, Tx: Word Books. 1991. pg. 407.
2      Ibid. pg. 422.

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