The Discipline of Suffering

Chapters 11 and 12 of Hebrews are extended expositions of 10:35, 36. “Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what is promised.” Chapter 11 gives a picture of the different situations in which people maintained their confidence and endured with a view to receiving what was promised, even though that full reward is yet future at their death (11:39, 40). Chapter 12 then unfolds all that is involved in the “need of endurance.”

I. Elements of the argument

A. What is to be received – the immutable glory won for believers through the suffering of Christ.

1. The reward to Christ for his endurance is his being “seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (2)

2. The immutable treasure given to us

Share in his holiness (10)

Peaceful fruit of righteousness (11)

See the Lord (14)

Nine blessings of our present possessions and promise listed in 12:22-24: ”You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”

A Kingdom that cannot be shaken (28)

B. Obstacles to be overcome – Sin has affected every portion of human nature, and we must carefully sort out the manner and sphere of its pervasive manifestation.

1. every weight (1)

2. The sin that clings so closely (1)

3. Struggle against sin (4)

4. Drooping hands, weak knees, lame (12)

5. Root of bitterness (15)

6. Sexual immorality (16)

7. Unholiness like that of Esau (16)

8. prohibitive holiness of God (18-20)

9. Our tendency to look at external conformity as true holiness (9, 10)

C. Means employed to receive what was promised –Sanctification can never be passive, never a “let go and let God.” Because sanctification involves the transformation of the whole person to the moral image of Christ in his perfectly holy humanity, it will involve no less that the vigorous engagement of all of our faculties; this is the secret, sovereign, and omnipotent work of the Spirit, but, as such, in accordance with the nature of the work, no part of our personalities or human faculties will be left out of the remodeling process. We must learn to subdue events, words, and trains of thought that feed our pride, reprove excuses that justify our indolence, beware of situations that nurse indwelling sin, and reprobate any tendency to complain or murmur about God’s providences in our lives. With the same vigor and determination with which Christ pursued his obedience to the Father, including an absorbing of the reality of the cross into that obedience, so we must strain every nerve, and subdue every thought in this great, noble, holy, task.

1. Lay aside every weight (1)

2. Run with patience (1)

3. Look to Jesus as the author and perfecter of faith (2)

4. Consider him who endured (3)

5. Resist sin in a great struggle (4)

6. Engage and benefit from God’s purposeful discipline (5)

7 Lift, strengthen, make straight paths (12, 13)

8. Strive (14)

9. See to it that no one fails etc. (15)

10. See that you do not refuse … (25)

11. Let us be grateful (28)

12. Let us offer . . . worship (28)

II.  A Specific example expanded – Hebrews 12:1-7

A. The encouragement – A large number has gone before us and reached the end of the earthly exile with enduring faith. We are surrounded with this cloud of faithful saints that have born witness to the superiority of a future reward in the presence of God. All of those that have gone before us sustaining this testimony have glimpsed at least a portion of that joy that was set before Jesus Himself.

B. “Let us also” – That is, as they did, let us do.

1. Eliminate distractions – chapter 11 shows the powerful  and distracting detours set before them:  riches, power, pleasure, fear, safety, earthly affection, ridicule, threats, and persecution.

Lay aside every weight – The image of a runner putting aside anything that could encumber; we have nothing on earth that we can take with us to heaven. Naked we came into this world, and naked we shall leave.

Sin which easily besets us; It is always near us, in us, around us, dogging our steps. Indwelling sin is subtle and deceitful. The New Testament has heavy warning against the destructive power of remaining sin. We are to put it off, lay it aside, mortify it.

1 Peter 2:1, 2, 11 gives five manifestations of indwelling sin that are to be overcome, isolates their source, and identifies their tendency: Malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander, all of which arise from the “passions of the flesh” and are soul-destroyers by their very nature. The very active verbs by which we oppose these things [“put away,” “abstain”] are strengthened by the inflow of “pure spiritual milk,” a constant attention to and application of the word of God.

Romans 8:13 give a certain evidence of one’s standing in salvation as his vigorous efforts against all the works of the flesh [Galatians 5:19-21] by a conscious engagement with the help of the Spirit. Live according to the flesh, and die. Put the flesh to death, and live.

2. Keep the goal in sight, that is, Jesus Christ

The author and finisher of faith – Faith has efficacy to save only in the way that it unites us to Christ. All that rightly relates us to God and opens to us all the spiritual blessings that fit us for heaven are in Christ or gained by his righteousness; cf. 2 Peter 1: 1 “to those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.”

His work effects the operation of the Father’s decree for us : “He who began the good work in you will bring it to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” [Phil 1:6]

He is the author of faith in eternity through his part in the eternal covenant of redemption. He is the author in time through the incarnation and completed work of salvation. He is the author in human experience through the work of the Holy Spirit.

He is the finisher of faith in his complete satisfaction of all the Father’s legal and moral claims against a rebellious, unrighteous, and unholy people ; As the writer summarized in chapter 1 – “Having made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high, having become as superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”

For the joy set before him. The writer reminds us, that endurance depends entirely on having an adequate perception of the goal to be reached through such endurance. If we do not value the end of the pilgrimage more than the allurement to step aside from the pilgrimage, we will not continue the journey. Our end must be the same as that which motivated Jesus, to live in the presence of the glory and love of God in the triumphal splendor of a well-executed and completed covenant. (Hebrews 8:6, 9:15; 10:29; 13:20)

Endured the cross – Not only did the cross inflict an exquisitely cruel punishment from a human standpoint on Christ, but it was commandeered by the Father as the place in which the confluence of physical death and spiritual death would come together in the experience of our substitute as he died, the just for the unjust. Truly he could say, as he entered into the experience of his people, “For evils have encompassed me beyond number; my iniquities [those that I have owned as mine for the redemption of my people] have overtaken me, and I cannot see; they are more than the hairs of my head; my heart fails me” (Psalm 40:12)

Despising the shame – This means counting the shame of it as unworthy of consideration in light of what it was accomplishing.

And is seated at the right hand of the throne of God – When Jesus was on trial, he gave as a statement of his final triumph and the full vindication of his mission as Son of Man with this assertion: “From now on the Son of Man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” (Luke22:69). He is there now, in our nature (Hebrews 2:9) with all the authority that has been given him (Matthew 28:18) to execute salvation for those for whom he has died and judgment on those that are his enemies (Ephesians 1:20-22).

C. Consider him (3)

1. The hostility that he endured from sinners was far greater than any we might experience and was completely beyond any justification from his tormenters. “Which of you convinceth me of sin?” (John 8:46)

2. This truth will give strength to us in our weariness and courage in our faint-heartedness. A strong meditation on the work of Christ in light of his purity and the unjust hostility of sinners against him, will open a deep well of moral justification for our struggle. He suffered innocently but endured it joyfully. We struggle as guilty and polluted people: We must bear the words of the thief on our lips and in our hearts: “And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:41).

4. In your struggle against sin – While we might have to struggle against external opposition, as those to whom this epistle was written, we see that our most prolonged, constant, and deepest struggle is against the sin “which clings so closely.” This is so important that the writer will not consent that a struggle even to the point of shedding blood would be too much (11:36, 37). The option in some situations is shed blood now or have the flames of hell hereafter. The point, however, is that this healthy fear of divine holiness and legitimate wrath runs parallel to a higher vision, the reward of the beauty and excellence of knowing God through Christ (11:6, 16, 26).

D. The Privilege of Sonship – The writer draws attention to Proverbs 3:11, 12.

1. He treats Proverbs as useful for understanding how God deals with his redeemed children

“Do not regard lightly” – When God brings discipline into our lives, the consequences are eternal and are for our benefit, so we should be grateful and expectant of deeper godliness and more focused knowledge of the gracious benefits of union with Christ

“Nor be weary” – In the realm of God’s sanctifying influences, God’s children should never tire of his attention to them.  Paul sets this in context in Romans 6:22 – “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.”

Verses 6, 7 – Discipline is a sure sign of God’s love for us, and, if it is received with submission and a spirit of gratitude, gives assurance that we have been received by God as his Sons. “Sons” is a word that, in this spiritual significance, should not be neuterized, for it relates specifically to the inheritance received by the first-born son in the Old Testament. All the redeemed are in that sense, sons of God. We must seek the grace of benefitting from discipline with a sense of joy and an expectation of increased holiness, and thus, happiness. [see verse 11]

2. God has no intention of chastening those that are not his children for their good. They will experience judgment, but the unregenerate will resent the periods of difficulty, will be driven further from any benefit toward godliness and gratitude. Discipline prompts different realities.

The “discipline” toward unbelievers turns to greater judgment for they do not respond in a way that increases worship of God and holiness.

The discipline of parents for our good helps establish manners, respectful living, civilized interaction in society but cannot go beyond helping children adjust to others in an external conformity to certain standards that govern social relations. We have the power neither to regenerate nor sanctify our children. We must employ all wisdom (“as seemed best to them”) to inculcate truth, moral instruction, spiritual exhortation that will serve as a foundation for the effectual operation of the Spirit of God.

God’s discipline of his children is based on that which is intrinsically good. He shows us the true excellence of the divine law and gives a taste of its glory so that we say, “O how I love thy Law,” and presses us toward real holiness.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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