Notice the word “therefore” at the beginning of this passage in verse 12 of Hebrews 12:12–17. This means that what we saw last week in verses 3–11 is part of the basis for the exhortations in verses 12–17. The main point of last week’s text was:
The pain and trouble you are experiencing is not a sign of the hatred of God, but the love of God. Verse 6: “Those whom the Lord loves he disciplines.” Your persecution is not a sign of God’s treating you as enemies, but as sons. Verse 7: “It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons.” Your suffering is not meaningless, but designed for your good and your holiness. Verse 10: “He disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.”
God’s Fatherly Design
Since the fatherly love of God designs your pain for your good and your holiness . . .
- therefore (verse 12) “strengthen your weak hands and feeble knees . . .”
- therefore (verse 13) “make straight paths for your feet” and don’t meander around in the Christian life; run the straight race . . .
- therefore (verse 14) “Pursue peace and sanctification;” that is, pursue the holiness that God is pursuing in you by his discipline! . . .
- therefore (verse 15) “don’t fall short of the grace of God; don’t let a root of bitterness spring up and defile . . .” God is working grace for you through discipline; don’t miss it.
- therefore (verse 16) don’t be like Esau who sold his birthright for a single meal and after that could not repent. Don’t trade the pain of God’s discipline for the delights of the world.
“Your suffering is not meaningless, but designed for your good and your holiness.”
All of these commands for us to do something are rooted in something God is already doing for us and in us. So just like chapter 11 taught us, we are to do these things “by faith,” that is, with the assurance that God is for us and is working for those who trust him. We are not being commanded here in this text to do things that will get God to adopt us as his children. We are being commanded to act like people who are utterly persuaded that we are already adopted through faith, and that our omnipotent Father loves us, and that the most painful adversities of our lives are expressions of his loving discipline and not his hateful vengeance.
That’s what the “therefore” means at the beginning of verse 12: God is ruling over the lives of his people. The persecution and sickness and adversity we endure are part of God’s sovereign design for our good and our holiness. Therefore, be strengthened by this truth, and join God in pursuing the holiness he designs, drink in this grace; don’t throw away your birthright as a child of God by saying, “To hell with these sufferings; if that’s the way God is, I’m going back to Egypt” (see 11:25–26).
Does God Punish Us?
Now maybe it will help this stick if I try to answer one of the questions that people asked me from last week’s message. The most common one was, “Does the discipline of God in verses 3–11 mean punishment? Are we being punished when we are persecuted or when we are sick or troubled?”
Answer: this book teaches that Christ died to bear our sins. Hebrews 9:28: “Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many.” Christ bore the punishment for our sins. As Isaiah 53:5 says, “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities.” Therefore it would be wrong to think of the pain that happens to us now as God’s punishing our sins a second time: as though they get punished once in Christ’s suffering and once in our suffering. That view of our suffering would dishonor the suffering of Christ.
Instead, we ought to think that the suffering of Christ for us has changed our suffering into something utterly different from ordinary punishment. Just as the death of Christ for us has changed our death into something utterly different — “O death where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55). The death of Christ for us has taken the sting out of our death; and the suffering of Christ for us has taken the punishment out of suffering. What then is left of discipline if the punishment has been taken out of it? The answer is that purifying is left, and training and deepening and sobering and refining.
This is why we ended the service last week with the verse from “How Firm a Foundation”:
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee, I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.
Deeper Faith and Holiness
In other words, God’s design in discipline is not to hurt ultimately, though it does hurt temporarily (Hebrews 12:11). His aim is not punitive; it is not vengeance; it is not retributive justice; it is purification and refining. How should we then feel when we are persecuted or betrayed or inflicted with disease? We should feel that God loves us and that he knows the best therapy for purifying and refining and deepening and strengthening our faith and holiness. There are, no doubt, particular habits of sin that need to be rooted out of our lives. But the pain may be more generally designed just to take us into deeper faith and a deeper holiness.
I say this partly because of Hebrews 5:8 where the writer says of Jesus, who was sinless (Hebrews 4:15), “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience from the things which he suffered.” The design of God in the suffering of his Son was not only that he might bear our punishment, but that he himself might learn depths and dimensions of faithfulness and obedience that could not be learned any other way. If it was true for the Son of God, how much more true for us.
Take an illustration from the life of Paul. In 2 Corinthians 1:8–9, he described a painful experience he had in Asia:
We do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves in order that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead.
Now, this illustration shows the design of God in Paul’s affliction.
The last aim of God’s discipline in the moment of death is simple, humble, childlike trust in “the God who raises the dead.”
What is it? This has happened, he says, “In order that [notice the purpose or the design] we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead.” Here the “discipline” of God is not connected with any sin Paul committed. It is connected with a deepening of faith. We are all prone to trust in human resources for our sense of security and happiness. So God sometimes strips us (or someone near us) of all those resources, as Paul says, “beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life itself.” The aim is not punishment, but utter, radical resting in God alone for our hope even in the face of death. The last aim of God’s discipline in the moment of death is simple, humble, childlike trust in “the God who raises the dead.”
So the answer to last week’s question is: No, God’s discipline is not the same as punishment. The whole point is, again, that God is the Father of his people; he loves us unimaginably; he is not looking on passively while we get lacerated, and then fixing our wounds in the emergency room of life; he is the infinitely wise surgeon designing how he will operate on us to deepen our faith and make us holy.
Now, why are we told all this? It is more than some people want to know about God. It is troubling to some and causes problems in their minds. The answer is that God means for us to be helped by it in our running the rough race of radical Christian living. Notice that last week’s text (12:3–11) is sandwiched between exhortations to run well and run straight and not to be worn out or hindered. It’s meant to help us run.
Recall Hebrews 12:1: “Let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” So the Christian life is a race to be run, and there are sins to forsake and encumbrances to shed. The danger this church is facing is mentioned in verse 3: “Consider him who has endured such hostility by sinners against himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart.” They were growing weary and losing heart. Why? Because life is hard. There is persecution and there is adversity of every kind and there is sickness.
That’s why verses 3–11 exist. God wants us to understand one crucial reason life is hard. Why adversity? Why imprisonment (Hebrews 11:34)? Why atrocities against the people of God? Why sickness? Why doesn’t God just fix it? Without verses 3–11 this writer thinks weariness and discouragement will get the upper hand. Notice the connection between verse 3 and verse 12 (to see the sandwich). In verse 3, the exhortation is that we not “grow weary and lose heart.” In verse 12, the exhortation is that we “strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble.” It’s the same concern before and after the teaching on God’s discipline.
And notice the connection between verse 1 and verse 13. Verse 1 calls us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us,” and verse 13 says, “Make straight paths for your feet.” In other words, the aim of all this teaching about God’s discipline in our suffering is so that we will not give up the race — that we not fall exhausted in discouragement or take a detour on some easier path.
The assumption is that knowing what God is up to in our suffering — that it is in fact the loving, sovereign God who is at work for us in it all — is the key to pressing on in the race of holy Christian living.
Peaceful Fruits of Righteousness
He gives a couple of examples of how the two are connected — how God’s design in our suffering and our pursuing the race are connected. Take the one in verse 14: “Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification [= holiness] without which no one will see the Lord.” Notice the words, “peace” and “sanctification” (or “holiness”). Running the race means pursuing peace and pursuing holiness. That is the straight path that leads to life — to seeing the Lord.
“Running the race means pursuing peace and pursuing holiness. That is the straight path that leads to life — to seeing the Lord.”
But how does the discipline of God in our lives through suffering help us press on with that? Look at verse 10b: [God] disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.” Holiness is what God is pursuing in us through our suffering. And holiness is what we are to pursue in our race. And the connection is “therefore” (verse 12). He pursues our holiness; therefore we pursue holiness. We are not doing this on our own. God is at work in us (Hebrews 13:21) and we are to join his sovereign design. We are to be mightily encouraged to do this (see Philippians 2:12–13).
And notice verse 11: “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” See the word “peaceful” or “peaceable.”
This parallels the exhortation in verse 14, “Pursue peace with all men.” And what’s the connection? “Therefore!” In all your adversity God is at work designing a peaceable fruit of righteousness. Therefore, pursue peace. Not the other way around. God is at work, so you take heart and work. God is pursuing your peacefulness and your peaceableness. So you strengthen your hands and pursue peace.
Lay Aside Every Weight
This is close to the essence of the Christian life. The commands of God are not given to us so that we might get God to act for us. They are given to us so that we might trust that — even in our hardest times — God is already at work for us to accomplish the very things he commands us to do.
I am designing to bring about your holiness in all your pain . . . therefore pursue holiness. I am designing to bring about your peace in all your pain, says the Lord . . . therefore pursue peace.
Or as verse 15 says: I am pouring grace into your life through my fatherly discipline . . . therefore don’t fail to receive it. Don’t miss it.
This is followed by the warning of Esau: he missed it. Verse 16b: “[Esau] sold his own birthright for a single meal.” That is, he looked down the straight path that leads to life and he saw adversity and hunger, and instead of believing that God was in it and working for his good — as a loving, disciplining Father — he sold it for a single meal and left the race. And the terrifying thing is, he could not return. Verse 17: “You know that even afterwards, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears.”
He tried to repent and could not. He had gone too far (see 1 John 5:16). God will forgive all genuine repentance no matter what you’ve done. But there is a hardening against God that goes over the line and can no longer repent. And this is meant as a very sober warning.
So here is the sum of the matter: Hebrews 12:1 tells us to run the race of the Christian life no matter how hard the course. To that end, lay aside every encumbrance and every sin. Pursue peace. Pursue holiness. Don’t let your suffering discourage you and make you fall or tempt you to leave the race track. Don’t forget that in all your suffering your Father is in charge and loves you and designs for you and in you the very things he is calling you to pursue. Don’t be like Esau who would not lay aside even a single meal, but traded away his soul.
“In all your suffering, your Father is in charge and loves you.”
So here is how we want to close this service and these last three sermons on the adversities of our lives. There are “sins,” “encumbrances” and “single meals” that we need to be renounced. I invite you to take a moment and seek God’s insight into what they are in your life. Write them on the leaflet of the worship folder, commit yourself to this renunciation, pray for God’s grace in a time of need, and symbolically drop them in the receptacle on your way out.
May God give us the deep, unshakable faith in his loving sovereignty so that we run and do not grow weary.