Archive for the ‘Hebrews’ Category


The Discipline of Suffering

December 18, 2012



Off again-On again image BS — click on the above and you will see what I am trying to relate to the following.

“In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children — “My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him; for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.”

Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children. Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness.

Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.”
Hebrews 12:4-13


A direct appeal to the readers’ experience of suffering leads off this section. Having exhorted them in the previous section to cast off the burden of sin, the author now acknowledges that they have been engaged in a struggle against sin — but it is the sin of others, who have imposed suffering on them. The reference recalls the earlier reference to their “struggle with sufferings” in 10:32-34. Whatever form the persecution took, it most likely involved some form of social dislocation or harassment. The readers may have been treated harshly in Rome in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. Thus the author can say that they had not resisted to the point of bloodshed. As they were exhorted to endurance in that previous section (Hebrews 10:36), so also here.

Their struggle is not necessarily explained, nor is it dismissed, but the author attempts to place it in the context of the tradition of discipline. Perhaps he feels that were the readers to understand their sufferings as discipline they would be more likely to endure them. To that end the citation of Scripture may help. The text from Proverbs 3:11-12 elevates ordinary parental discipline to the level of divine discipline in an effort to show that discipline does not preclude love. Rather, the fact that the readers suffer so is a manifestation of their status as children of God. To deny the importance of discipline or to escape it altogether would be tantamount to accepting the status of illegitimate children. This, of course, is not possible for the readers, who have already been joined in fictive kinship with one another as brothers and sisters of Christ (Wisdom2:11-17; Wisdom 13:1).

The argument is advanced in a way typical of the author’s style. Interweaving parental and divine discipline, he constructs an a fortiori argument to show the inherent worth of divine discipline. Even though he appeals to the readers’ former relationship to their parents, he does so in the past tense. They “had” parents and they “respected” them. It is as if they have left the natural parental relationship behind in order to enter into fictive kinship in the Christian community, where God now functions as the spiritual parent.

If natural children respect their parents because as children they are subjected to them, then the spiritual parent, God, is worthy of much more respect, as holiness is a goal superior to any object of mere parental discipline. The analogy between parental and divine discipline is designed to enhance the image of God in the readers’ minds as well as to encourage them to endure their sufferings for a greater good.

Parents may discipline their children at will and perhaps according to their own whim but God’s discipline is always for the person’s good in advancing the individual toward holiness. Were there a simple correspondence between parental and divine discipline, the readers’ sufferings might have beer trivialized as nothing more than what any child would have to endure it the normal course of his or her relationship with a parent. The author constructs the argument, however, to show God’s care for them, which exceeds the obligation of a parent to the extent that it is also an invitation to share in God’s holiness.

The argument regarding discipline concludes in verse 11 with an observation from human experience. It is a commonplace that discipline is painful at the time it is being administered. With hindsight, however, a lesson can be drawn and the hardship may be seen to have produced some good. As with the example of Jesus, who endured suffering for the sake of the joy that was set before him (Wisdom 12:2), the readers are encouraged to look forward to the goal of discipline, specified here as the peaceful fruit of righteousness. The author returns to the athletic metaphor by specifying that the ones who receive the peaceful fruit of righteousness are those who have trained for it. The blending of athletic training and discipline is natural in moral exhortation, since both require the endurance of hardship for the sake of a future goal.

This section of the chapter closes with further scriptural allusions to Isaiah 35:3 in verse 12 and to Proverbs 4:26 in verse 13. The image of drooping hands and weak knees suggests the picture of someone who has been worn down by an athletic contest (Koester, 540). “Straightening” in the LXX comes in the form of divine aid. Here, however, the readers are to straighten themselves, somehow to lift themselves out of their weakened state. They need also to straighten the paths on which they walk so as not to do further harm to their limbs, but rather to progress on the path of healing. There may be an allusion to the athletic metaphor in the image of keeping on the straight path to the goal (Koester, 540), but it is more likely that the author is shifting to images associated with righteousness and moral virtue at this point. As indicated in the Notes above, moral exhortation among Hellenistic philosophers employed medical metaphors of treatment, surgery, and healing in their efforts to help individuals advance in progress toward achieving their moral purpose.

The role of suffering in our lives is hard to understand, especially when the innocent suffer. This question was no less difficult to answer in Hellenistic Judaism in the post-exilic era (Job 2:11-13; 33:29-33). Like Judaism, Christianity found meaning in suffering based on noble examples, in the case of Christians the example of the suffering and death of Christ. Hebrews contributes to that tradition by presenting Jesus “who learned obedience through what he suffered” (Wisdom 5:8).

Alluding, then, to his example, the author engages the readers’ real sufferings so as not to trivialize them. Speaking of them as a form of “discipline,” he wants his audience to know that they are not the cause of what they have to suffer. Rather, he places their hardship in a wider context that was shared by Jesus as well. As suffering was constitutive of his sonship, so also it is a sign that the readers are sons and daughters of God. Knowing that one cannot explain another’s suffering, the author prefers to show how suffering is related to God and to Christ. The readers, then, are drawn to understand the meaning of their own suffering in view of a larger goal.


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