Training and discipline from the Lord’s hand: part five

Training and discipline must have a purpose. Earthly fathers, teachers, and coaches do not put children into difficult situations for no purpose. They seek to develop good characteristics, preparing the children for life’s upcoming events. If God permitted Satan to test Job, God was not being arbitrary toward Job or using Job to win a bet. God had a good reason to allow the testing, and Job somehow was improved by the experience. If God permits you and me to struggle in our lives, he is not being arbitrary toward us. He has a good reason to allow the testing, and we somehow are improved by the experience.

God’s training and discipline are not responses to our sins, because God has forgiven our sins and remembers them no longer. What, then, is God seeking to accomplish by our hardships? The answer can perhaps be found in the way Jesus reacted to his chosen apostles. He chose them—they belonged to him—they were covered by his forgiveness as surely as any Christian is covered by his forgiveness. But it appears that Jesus sometimes lost patience with his apostles. As God he is all-knowing and all-powerful, eternal and unchanging. At the same time, Jesus is human. He is like us every way, except that he never sinned. The sins of others angered him. He cleared the Temple of those who were misusing it. He lectured about the shortcomings of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus taught God’s Law clearly to all who would listen. But what about times when his chosen and forgiven apostles aggravated Jesus? Here are five examples:

“Behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but [Jesus] was asleep. And they went and woke him, saying, ‘Save us, Lord; we are perishing.’ And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?’” (Matthew 8:24-26)

“Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ [Jesus] said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me.’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’” (Matthew 14:28-31)

“When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, ‘We brought no bread.’ But Jesus, aware of this, said, ‘O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not perceive?’” (Matthew 16:5-9)

“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.’” (Matthew 16:21-23)

And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and kneeling before him, said, ‘Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.’ And Jesus answered, ‘O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.’ And Jesus rebuked him, and the demon came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ He said to them, ‘Because of your little faith.’” (Matthew 17:14-20)

If anything frustrates Jesus, he is frustrated to see his own chosen people fail to exercise their faith. Jesus grants faith to his people, but he also expects us to exercise that faith. When we fear and doubt, when we lose sight of the cross and try to belong to Jesus without it, when we try to serve him by our own power rather than his power, then we fail. We do not lose our forgiveness—not unless we completely lose our faith. But Jesus wants us to be focused on him, not on ourselves. He wants us to measure his power, not our faith.

This is not to say that the wrath of God falls upon Christians when our faith is too small. Just the opposite: we are saved from God’s wrath by even the smallest faith, provided that our faith is in Jesus Christ, who drank from the cup of his Father’s wrath toward sinners until the cup was empty. But God, in loving discipline and training, gives us faith-lifting exercises even as coaches assign weight-lifting exercises to athletes. Even if Jesus is frustrated by our little faith, he also loves us and wants to see that faith grow—not for his benefit, but for our benefit.

God trains us through adversity, because “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5). For this reason we rejoice, because our sufferings draw us to the cross of Christ, where all our sins are forgiven, and all our enemies are defeated, and we are claimed as God’s people forever. J.

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Training and discipline from the Lord’s hand: part four

Hebrews 11 is often called the Honor Roll of Faith. Great believers of the Old Testament are mentioned along with the obstacles they faced and overcame through their faith in the coming Savior. Verses 35 to 38 particularly focus on believers who were tortured, imprisoned, and killed because of their faith. All these faithful believers are summarized in Hebrews 12:1 as a great cloud of witnesses watching us run the face, and the culmination of this list is Jesus himself, “the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

The transition to God’s discipline follows from this mention of Jesus and the cross: “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebrews 12:3-4). Notice the progression: the saints of the Old Testament suffered, sometimes violently, from the attacks of enemies to their faith. Jesus suffered and died at the hand of such enemies also. We can expect opposition of the same kind, even if it has not yet become as violent as that which Jesus and other servants of God faced.

From this perspective it appears that the discipline of God comes through the enemies of God, which are also our enemies—namely, the devil, the sinful world, and the sin still within each of us. Job was tested by Satan, even though he did not deserve to suffer. God permitted the testing but also limited it. Paul’s thorn in the flesh was “a messenger of Satan to harass me” (II Corinthians 12:7). Jesus once said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).

Every setback and disappointment that a Christian faces is not discipline from the hand of God. Some burdens we bear in common with all people, believers and unbelievers alike. Colds, allergies, diabetes, cancer, anxiety, depression: these are not crosses we bear for Christ, nor are they discipline from God. They are part of the result of living in a sin-polluted world. When the car stalls in traffic, when rain falls on our picnic, when an unexpected bill comes in the mail, God is not calling us to examine our lives and determine which sin he wants us to quit. God does not want us to sin at all, but our sins are forgiven. Christ was beaten as he did not deserve to rescue us from discipline we deserve.

On the other hand, we are being trained to live as God’s people. When our faith and obedience annoys God’s enemies, we must be doing something right. God allows us to experience their resistance to strengthen our faith. Whatever difficulties we face are good for us, as they direct our attention to the price Christ paid to redeem us. The devil wants us to struggle so he can convince us that God does not love us or is not taking care of us. When our struggles remind us of the cross of Christ, of all that he paid to make us his people, then the devil loses in his opposition and we share once again in the victory Christ has won.

Guilt is good when it brings us to the cross. Guilt is bad when it drives us to examine our sins and try to fix our own lives to please God. The devil uses our sense of guilt as a weapon against us. When trouble strikes and the question arises: “What did I do to deserve this?” we usually can think of answers to that question. But no discipline from God is a response to our sins. God has blotted out all our sins with the blood of his Son. He sees each of us now through his Son’s righteousness. God does not want us to sin, but he also does not want us to focus all our attention on our sins. He wants us to set our eyes on Jesus and to find strength and comfort and hope in him.

To be continued…. J.

Training and discipline from the Lord’s hand: part three

How do Christians apply Hebrews 12:5-11 to our lives? “Have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son whom he receives.’ It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us, and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed good to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

If God sees no sin in us, how can he discipline us for our sins? If he sees our sins and responds to them, how can we be sure that we are forgiven? To answer these questions, it is necessary to do three things. First, we must look at the word translated “discipline” and be sure we understand what it means generally and especially in these verses. Second, we must see this passage in its context within the letter to the Hebrews. Third, we must view this verse in context of the entire Bible and its message to God’s people.

Both the NIV and the ESV translate the Greek word used in Hebrews 12 as “discipline.” Working only from the English, it is tempting to make a connection here to discipleship, but the actual Greek word does not suit that connection. In fact, the Greek work is derived from the noun for a young child and refers to teaching or training that child. Depending upon its context, it sometimes describes violent training, such as a spanking. We might compare the word to an English sentence—“I’m going to teach you a lesson”—which could mean anything from an offer to tutor someone to a threat to beat someone.

Other books in the New Testament use this word with the full range of possible meanings. On the one hand, when Pontius Pilate wanted to have Christ beaten and then released, he chose that word to describe the beating (Luke 23:16). On the other hand, when Stephen described Moses being raised in the household of Pharaoh, he used the same word to describe Moses’ lessons (Acts 7:22). Paul used the same word to describe his lessons as he studied under the Pharisees (Acts 22:3). Other instances of the word fall between these two extremes of tutoring and beating. In I Corinthians 11:32, Paul speaks of God’s discipline upon Christians who receive the Lord’s Supper without discerning the body of the Lord, “which is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” In II Corinthians 6:9 Paul declares that the apostles are “punished, and yet not killed.” In I Timothy 1:20, Paul mentions two Christians who are handed over to Satan to train them not to blaspheme. But in II Timothy 2:25, Paul counsels Timothy to train his opponents with gentleness, leading to repentance and a knowledge of the truth. In Titus 2:11-12, Paul speaks of the grace of God and his salvation “training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions.” Finally, in Revelation 3:19 Jesus echoes the thought of Hebrews 12 as he says, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline.” In each of these verses, the same word is used.

How then can we know whether the letter to the Hebrews speaks of training/discipline in the sense of gentle teaching or in the sense of violent treatment? Verse 11 describes the experience as painful rather than pleasant. But to fully understand the repeated use of this word in Hebrews 12:5-11, we need to study the entire flow of Hebrews 11 and 12.

To be continued…. J.

Training and discipline from the Lord’s hand: part two

From Job’s sufferings to Paul’s thorn in the flesh, the Bible pictures godly people suffering, not as punishment for their sins or a consequence of their sins, but simply because we live in a world polluted by sin. Jesus spoke a blessing upon those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. He said that those who died in catastrophic events were not worse than other sinners, but that “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5). Indeed, Paul viewed suffering in this world as a positive thing: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4) and “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17), among others.

What of the covenant that promises blessings for those who obey God’s commands and threatens curses on those who break his commands? Deuteronomy 28 is one of many passages that describe this covenant. First, though, this is God’s covenant with a chosen people, not with individuals. It was fulfilled in the history of Israel, from Judges through Esther, as both good and bad people prospered in Israel when the nation was largely faithful to God, and both good and bad people suffered in Israel when the nation was largely unfaithful. Second, this passage describes the Old Covenant, the Law of God, from which Christ has set us free. “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write in on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-34). “For our sake he made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:21). “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).  “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27).

In the New Covenant Christians are completely and unconditionally forgiven. God sees no sin or fault in any Christian. Daily we confess our sins and throw ourselves on God’s mercy, seeking his forgiveness. Daily he sees us through the righteousness of Christ and treats us as Christ deserves. Our sins were killed on the cross with Christ and buried with Christ. He rose, but our sins remained dead and buried. God sees no sin in us, which is why he has no condemnation for us.

To be continued…. J.

Training and discipline from the Lord’s hand: part one

Some years ago, I attended a conference for church workers with the theme of “Holy Health and Wholeness,” or something along those lines. The featured speaker was a pastor/theologian who was considered an expert on the topic of health and how to be healthy according to spiritual principles. Much of his message centered around maintaining a positive attitude, dealing with stress instead of succumbing to stress, and being good stewards of our physical health.

On the one hand, I agree that each Christian is responsible for being a good steward of his or her body. We all should make good decisions about nutrition, sleep, exercise, and hygiene. We should avoid harmful substances and bad habits. Negative thoughts and poor stress management can lead to physical symptoms. On the other hand, I am skeptical regarding claims that we can be in charge of our own health, that we can be healthy and happy simply by replacing bad choices with good choices. Whether those claims are made by a Christian, a New Age practitioner, or a secular source, I believe that things are more complicated than those speakers picture them. The Bible says more about life than how to be healthy, wealthy, and comfortable in this world. In fact, the Bible more often deals with the problem that, in this sin-polluted world, often the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer.

To provide full disclosure: the week of that conference I was suffering from an ear infection. Symptoms included pain, lightheadedness, and distortion of sounds. In that condition, I was hostile toward any suggestion that I was responsible for my discomfort—that if I made better choices, I would not have been battling an infection and needing to take painkillers and antibiotics to make the problem go away. In fact, I was seriously considering questioning the speaker about blaming the victim and making things worse instead of better.

Instead, I began searching the Bible to see if I could find verses that would support the speaker’s point of view. Here are some of the verses I found: “Remember: who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same…. For affliction does not come from the dust, nor does trouble sprout from the ground, but man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward. As for me, I would seek God, and to God would I commit my cause…. Behold, blessed is the one whom God reproves; therefore despise not the discipline of the Almighty…. If you will seek God and plead with the Almighty for mercy, if you are pure and upright, surely then he will rouse himself for you and restore your rightful habitation…. If you prepare your heart, you will stretch out your hands toward him. If iniquity is in your hand, put it far away, and let not injustice dwell in your tents. Surely then you will lift up your face without blemish; you will be secure and will not fear. You will forget your misery; you will remember it as waters that have passed away. And your life will be brighter than the noonday; its darkness will be like the morning…. Agree with God and be at peace; thereby gold will come to you. Receive instruction from his mouth and lay up his words in your heart. If you return to the Almighty you will be built up; if you remove injustice far from your tents, if you lay gold in the dust and gold of Ophir among the stones of the torrent bed, then the Almighty will be your gold and our precious silver. For then you will delight yourself in the Almighty and lift up your face to God. You will make your prayer to him, and he will hear you, and you will pay your vows.”

Before anyone rushes for a concordance to find these verses, I will reveal where I discovered them. They are written in the book of Job—namely 4:7-8; 5:6-8; 5:17; 8:5-6; 11:13-17; 22:21-27. These are the words of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, friends of Job who came to comfort him in his suffering but ended up accusing him. Confident that God makes no mistakes, these three friends told Job that he needed to return to God; if he was being chastened by the Almighty, then surely the purpose was to wake Job from his spiritual slumber and restore him to a right relationship with God. The Lord responded to Eliphaz saying, “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” God called for a sacrifice to atone for their sin and promised to hear Job when he prayed for their forgiveness (Job 42:7-9).

To be continued…. J.