An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
The grand truth of Divine Chastisement is inexpressibly blessed, and one which we can neglect only to our great loss. It is of deep importance, for when Scripturally apprehended it preserves from some serious errors by which Satan has succeeded (as "an angel of light") in deceiving and destroying not a few. For example, it sounds the death-knell to that wide-spread delusion of "sinless perfectionism." The passage which is to be before us unmistakably exposes the wild fanaticism of those who imagine that, as the result of some "second work of grace," the carnal nature has been eradicated from their beings, so that, while perhaps not so wise, they are as pure as the angels which never sinned, and lead lives which are blameless in the sight of the thrice holy God. Poor blinded souls: such have not even experienced a first "work of Divine grace" in their souls: "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8).
"My son despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of Him; for whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth" (Heb. 12:5, 6). How plain and emphatic is that! God does find something to "rebuke" in us, and uses the rod upon every one of His children. Chastisement for sin is a family mark, a sign of sonship, a proof of God’s love, a token of His Fatherly kindness and care; it is an inestimable mercy, a choice new-covenant blessing. Woe to the man whom God chastens not, whom He suffers to go recklessly on in the boastful and presumptuous security which so many now mistake for faith. There is a reckoning to come of which he little dreams. Were he a son, he would be chastened for his sin; he would be brought to repentance and godly sorrow, he would with grief of heart confess his backslidings, and then be blest with pardon and peace.
The truth of Divine chastisement corrects another serious error, which has become quite common in certain quarters, namely, that God views His people so completely in Christ that He sees no sin in them. It is true, blessedly true, that of His elect it is stated, "He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath He seen perverseness in Israel" (Num. 23:21) and that Christ declares of His spouse "Thou art all fair, My love; there is no spot in thee" (Song 4:7). The testimony of Scripture is most express that in regard to the justification or acceptance of the persons of the elect, they are "complete in Him"—Christ (Col. 2:10); "accepted in the Beloved" (Eph. 1:6)—washed in Christ’s blood, clothed with His righteousness. In that sense, God sees no sin in them; none to punish. But we must not use that precious truth to set aside another, revealed with equal clearness, and thus fall into serious error.
God does see sin in His children and chastises them for it. Even though the non-imputation of sin to the believer (Rom. 4:8) and the chastisement of sin in believers (1 Cor. 11:30-32) were irreconcilable to human reason, we are bound to receive both on the authority of Holy Writ. Let us beware lest we fall under the solemn charge of Malachi 2:9, "Ye have not kept My ways, but have been partial in the law." What could be plainer than this, "I will make Him my Firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth. My mercy will I keep for Him for evermore, and My covenant shall stand fast with Him. His seed also will I make to endure forever and His throne as the days of heaven. If His children forsake My law, and walk not in My judgments; if they break My statutes, and keep not My commandments; then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes. Nevertheless My loving kindness will I not utterly take from Him, nor suffer My faithfulness to fail" (Ps. 89:27-33). Five things are clearly revealed there. First Christ Himself is addressed under the name of "David." Second, His children break God’s statutes. Third, in them there is "iniquity" and "transgression." Fourth, God will "visit" their transgression "with the rod!" Fifth, yet will He not cast them off.
What could express more clearly the fact that God does see sin in believers, and that He does chastise them for it? For, be it noted, the whole of the above passage speaks of believers. It is the language, not of the Law, but of the Gospel. Blessed promises are there made to believers in Christ: the unchanging loving-kindness of God, His covenant-faithfulness toward them, His spiritual blessing of them. But "stripes" and the "rod" are there promised too! Then let us not dare to separate what God has joined together. How do we know anything concerning the acceptance of the elect in Christ? The answer must be, Only on the testimony of Holy Writ. Very well; from the same unerring Testimony we also know that God chastises His people for their sins. It is at our imminent peril that we reject either of these complementary truths.
The same fact is plainly presented again in Hebrews 12:7-10, "If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons: for what son is he whom the Father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons. Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live? For they verily, for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but He for our profit, that we might be partakers of His holiness." The apostle there draws an analogy from the natural relationship of father and child. Why do earthly parents chastise their children? Is it not for their faults? Can we justify a parent for chastening a child where there was no fault, nothing in him which called for the rod? In that case, it would be positive tyranny, actual cruelty. If the same be not true spiritually, then the comparison must fall to the ground. Hebrews 12 proves conclusively that, if God does not chastise me then I am an unbeliever, and I sign my own condemnation as a bastard.
Yet it is very necessary for us to point out, at this stage, that all the sufferings of believers in this world are not Divine rebukes for personal transgressions. Here too we need to be on our guard against lopsidedness. After we have apprehended the fact that God does take notice of the iniquities of His people and use the rod upon them, it is so easy to jump to the conclusion that when we see an afflicted Christian, God must be visiting His displeasure upon him. That is a sad and serious error. Some of the very choicest of God’s saints have been called on to endure the most painful and protracted sufferings; some of the most faithful and eminent servants of Christ have encountered the most relentless and extreme persecution. Not only is this a fact of observation, but it is plainly revealed in Holy Writ.
As we turn to God’s Word for light on the subject of suffering among the saints, we find it affirmed, "Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivereth him out of them all" (Ps. 34:19). Those "afflictions" are sent by God upon different ones for various reasons. Sometimes for the prevention of sin: the experience of the beloved apostle was a case in point, "And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure" (2 Cor. 12:7). Sometimes sore trials are sent for the testing and strengthening of our graces: "My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience" (James 1:2, 3). Sometimes God’s servants and people axe called on to endure fierce persecution for a confirmatory testimony to the Truth "And they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name" (Acts 5:41).
Yet here again we need to be much on our guard, for the flesh is ever ready to pervert even the holy things of God, and make an evil use of that which is good. When God is chastising a Christian for his sins, it is so easy for him to suppose such is not the case, and falsely comfort himself with the thought that God is only developing his graces, or permitting him to have closer fellowship with the sufferings of Christ. Where we are visited with afflictions personally, it is always the safest policy to assume that God has a controversy with us; humble ourselves beneath His mighty hand, and say with Job, "Show me wherefore Thou contendest with me" (10:2); and when He has convicted me of my fault, to penitently confess and forsake it. But where others are concerned, it is not for us to judge—though sometimes God reveals the cause to His servants (Amos 3:7).
In the passage which is to be before us, the apostle presents a third consideration why heed should be given unto the exhortation at the beginning of Hebrews 12, which calls to patient perseverance in the path of faith and obedience, notwithstanding all the obstacles, difficulties, and dangers which may be encountered therein. He now draws a motive from the nature of those sufferings considered in the light of God’s end in them: all the trials and persecutions which He may call on His people to endure are necessary, not only as testimonies to the truth, to the reality of His grace in them, but also as chastisements which are required by us, wherein God has a blessed design toward us. This argument is enforced by several considerations to the end of verse 13. How we should admire and adore the consummate wisdom of God which has so marvelously ordered all, that the very things which manifest the hatred of men against us, are evidences of His love toward us! How the realization of this should strengthen patience!
O how many of God’s dear children have found, in every age, that the afflictions which have come upon them from a hostile world, were soul-purging medicines from the Lord. By them they have been bestirred, revived, and mortified to things down here; and made partakers of God’s holiness, to their own unspeakable advantage and comfort. Truly wondrous are the ways of our great God. Hereby doth He defeat the counsels and expectations of the wicked, having a design to accomplish by their agency something which they know not of. These very reproaches, imprisonments, stripes, with the loss of goods and danger of their lives, with which the world opposed them for their ruin; God makes use of for their refining, consolation and joy. Truly He "maketh the wrath of man to praise Him" (Ps. 76:10). O that our hearts and minds may be duly impressed with the wisdom, power and grace of Him who bringeth a clean thing out of an unclean.
"In all these things is the wisdom and goodness of God, in contriving and effecting these things, to the glory of His grace, and the salvation of His Church, to be admired" (John Owen). But herein we may see, once more, the imperative need for faith—a God-given, God-sustained, spiritual, supernatural FAITH. Carnal reason can see no more in our persecutions than the malice and rage of evil men. Our senses perceive nothing beyond material losses and painful physical discomforts. But faith discovers the Father’s hand directing all things: faith is assured that all proceeds from His boundless love: faith realizes that He has in view the good of our souls. The more this is apprehended by the exercise of faith, not only the better for our peace of mind, but the readier shall we be to diligently apply ourselves in seeking to learn God’s lessons for us in every chastisement He lays upon us.
The opening "And" of verse 5 shows the apostle is continuing to present motives to stir unto a perseverance in the faith, notwithstanding sufferings for the same. The first motive was taken from the example of the O.T. worthies (verse 1). The second, from the illustrious pattern of Jesus (verses 2-4). This is the third: the Author of these sufferings—our Father—and His loving design in them. There is also a more immediate connection with 5:4 pointed by the "And:" it presents a tacit rebuke for being ready to faint under the lesser trials, wherewith they were exercised. Here He gives a reason how and why it was they were thus making that reason the means of introducing a new argument. The reason why they were ready to faint was their inattention to the direction and encouragement which God has supplied for them—our failure to appropriate God’s gracious provisions for us is the rise of all our spiritual miscarriages.
The Hebrew Christians to whom this epistle was first addressed were passing through a great fight of afflictions, and miserably were they acquitting themselves. They were the little remnant out of the Jewish nation who had believed on their Messiah during the days of His public ministry, plus those Jews who had been converted under the preaching of the apostles. It is highly probable that they had expected the Messianic kingdom would at once be set up on earth, and that they would be allotted the chief places of honor in it. But the millennium had not begun, and their own lot became increasingly bitter. They were not only hated by the Gentiles, but ostracized by their unbelieving brethren, and it became a hard matter for them to make even a bare living. Providence held a frowning face. Many who had made a profession of Christianity had gone back to Judaism and were prospering temporally. As the afflictions of the believing Jews increased they too were sorely tempted to turn their back upon the new Faith. Had they been wrong in embracing Christianity? Was high heaven displeased because they had identified themselves with Jesus of Nazareth? Did not their sufferings go to show that God no longer regarded them with favor?
Now it is most blessed and instructive to see how the apostle met the unbelieving reasoning of their hearts. He appealed to their own scriptures, reminding them of an exhortation found in Proverbs 3:11, 12: "And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastenings of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of Him" (Heb. 12:5). As we pointed out so often in our exposition of the earlier chapters of this Epistle, at every critical point in his argument the apostle’s appeal was to the written Word of God—an example which is binding on every servant of Christ to follow. That Word is the final court of appeal for every controversial matter, and the more its authority is respected, the more is its Author honored. Not only so, but the more God’s children are brought to turn to its instruction, the more will they be built up and established in the true faith. Moreover, "Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope" (Rom. 15:4): it is to them alone we must turn for solid comfort. Great will be our loss if we fail to do so.
"And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you." Note well the words we have placed in italics. The exhortation to which the apostle referred was uttered over a thousand years previously, under the Mosaic dispensation; nevertheless the apostle insists that it was addressed equally unto the New T. saints! How this exposes the cardinal error of modern "dispensationalists," who seek to rob Christians of the greater part of God’s precious Word. Under the pretense of "rightly dividing" the Word, they would filch from them all that God gave to His people prior to the beginning of the present era. Such a devilish device is to be steadfastly resisted by us. All that is found in the book of Proverbs is as much God the Father’s instruction to us as are the contents of the Pauline epistles! Throughout that book God addresses us individually as "My son:" see Hebrews 1:8, 3:1, 4:1, 5:1, etc. Surely that is quite sufficient for every spiritual mind—no labored argument is needed.
The appositeness of Proverbs 3:11, 12 to the case of the afflicted Hebrews gave great force to the apostle’s citing of it here. That passage would enable them to perceive that their case was by no means unprecedented or peculiar, that it was in fact no otherwise with them than it had been with others of God’s children in former ages and that long before the Lord had graciously laid in provision for their encouragement: "My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord; neither be weary of His correction: For whom the Lord loveth He correcteth, even as a Father the son in whom He delighteth" (Prov. 3:11, 12). It has ever been God’s way to correct those in whom He delights, to chastise His children; but so far from that salutary discipline causing us to faint, it should strengthen and comfort our hearts, being assured that such chastening proceeds from His love, and that the exhortation to perseverance in the path of duty is issued by Him. It is the height of pride and ingratitude not to comply with His tender entreaties.
But the apostle had to say to the suffering Hebrews, "Ye have forgotten the exhortation." To forget God’s gracious instruction is at least an infirmity, and with it they are here taxed. To forget the encouragements which the Father has given us is a serious fault: it is expressly forbidden: "Beware lest thou forget the Lord" (Deut. 6:12). It was taxed upon the Jews of old, "They soon forgat His works... They forgat God their Savior, which had done great things in Egypt" (Ps. 106:13, 21). Forgetfulness is a part of that corruption which has seized man by his fall: all the faculties of his soul have been seriously injured—the memory, which was placed in man to be a treasury, in which to lay up the directions and consolations of God’s Word, has not escaped the universal wreckage. But that by no means excuses us: it is a fault, to be striven and prayed against. As ministers see occasion, they are to stir up God’s people to use means for the strengthening of the memory—especially by the formation of the habit of holy meditation in Divine things.
Thus it was with the Hebrews, in some measure at least: they had "forgotten" that which should have stood in good stead in the hour of their need. Under their trials and persecution, they ought, in an especial manner, to have called to mind that Divine exhortation of Proverbs 3:11, 12 for their encouragement: had they believingly appropriated it, they had been kept from fainting. Alas, how often we are like them! "The want of a diligent consideration of the provision that God hath made in the Scripture for our encouragement to duty and comfort under difficulties, is a sinful forgetfulness, and is of dangerous consequence to our souls" (John Owen).
"Which speaketh unto you as unto children." It is very striking indeed to observe the tense of the verb here: the apostle was quoting a sentence of Scripture which had been written a thousand years previously, yet he does not say "which hath spoken," but "which speaketh unto you!" The same may be seen again in that sevenfold exhortation of Revelation 2 and 3, "He that hath an ear let him hear what the Spirit saith (not "said") unto the churches." The Holy Scriptures are a living Word, in which God speaks to men in every generation. Holy Writ is not a dumb or dead letter: it has a voice in it, ever speaking of God Himself. "The Holy Spirit is always present in the Word, and speaks in it equally and alike to the church in all ages. He doth in it speak as immediately to us, as if we were the first and only persons to whom He spake. And this should teach us, with what reverence we ought to attend to the Scriptures, namely, as to the way and means whereby God Himself speaks directly to us" (John Owen.)
"Which speaketh unto you as unto children." The apostle emphasizes the fact that God addresses an exhortation in Proverbs 3:11 to "My son," which shows plainly that His relation to the O.T. saints was that of a Father to His children. This at once refutes a glaring error made by some who pose as being ultra-orthodox, more deeply taught in the Word than others. They have insisted that the Fatherhood of God was never revealed until the Son became incarnate; but every verse in the Proverbs where God says "My son" reveals their mistake. That the O.T. saints were instructed in this blessed relationship is clear from other passages: "Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him" (Ps. 103:13). This relation unto God is by virtue of their (and our) union with Christ: He is "the Son," and being one with Him, members of His body, they were "sons" too.
This precious relationship is the ground of the soul’s confidence in God. "If God speaks to them as to children, they have good ground to fly to God as to a Father. and in all time of need to ask and seek of Him all needful blessings (Matthew 7:11), yea, and in faith to depend on Him for the same (Matthew 6:31, 32). What useful things shall they want? What hurtful thing need such to fear? If God deal with us as with children, He will provide for them every good thing, He will protect them from every hurtful thing, He will hear their prayers, He will accept their services, He will bear with their infirmities, He will support them under all their burdens, and assist them against all their assaults; though through their own weakness, or the violence of some temptation, they should be drawn from Him, yet will He be ready to meet them in the mid-way, turning to Him—instance the mind of the father of the prodigal towards him" (W. Gouge).