An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
The apostle Paul did not, like so many of our moderns, hurry through a subject and dismiss an unpleasant theme with a brief sentence or two. No, he could say truthfully, "I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you." His chief concern was not to please, but to help his hearers and readers. Well did he know the tendency of the heart to turn away quickly from what is searching and humbling, unto that which is more attractive and consoling. But so far from acceding to this spirit, he devoted as much attention unto exhortation as instruction, unto reproving as comforting, unto duties as expounding promises; while the latter was given its due place the former was not neglected. It behooves each servant of God to study the methods of the apostles, and seek wisdom and grace to emulate their practice; only thus will they preserve the balance of Truth, and be delivered from "handling the Word deceitfully" (2 Cor. 4:2).
Some years ago, when the editor was preaching a series of sermons on Hebrews 12:3-11, several members of the congregation intimated they were growing weary of hearing so much upon the subject of Divine chastisement. Alas, the very ones who chafed so much at hearing about God’s rod, have since been smitten the most severely by it. Should any of our present readers feel the same way about the writer’s treatment of this same passage, he would lovingly warn them that, though these articles may seem gloomy and irksome while prosperity be smiling upon them, nevertheless they will be well advised to "hearken and hear for the time to come" (Isa. 42:23). The sun will not always be shining upon you, dear reader, and if you now store these thoughts up in your memory, they may stand you in good stead when your sky becomes overcast.
Sooner or later, this portion of Holy Writ will apply very pertinently unto each of our cases. God "scourgeth every son whom He receiveth." None of the followers of "The Man of sorrows" are exempted from sorrow. It has been truly said that "God had one Son without sin, but none without suffering." So much depends upon how we "endure" suffering: the spirit in which it be received, the graces which are exercised by it, and the improvement which we make of it. Our attitude toward God, and the response which we make unto His disciplinary dealings with us, means that we shall either honor or dishonor Him, and suffer loss or reap gain therefrom. Manifold are our obligations to comport ourselves becomingly when God is pleased to scourge us, and many and varied are the motives and arguments which the Spirit, through the apostle, here presents to us for this end.
In the verse which is now to be before us a further reason is given showing the need of the Christian’s duty to meekly bear God’s chastenings. First, the apostle had reminded the saints of the teaching of Scripture, verse 5: how significant that he began with that! Second, he had comforted them with the assurance that the rod is wielded not by wrath, but in tender solicitude, verse 6. Third, he affirmed that God chastens all His children without exception, bastards only escaping, verses 7, 8. Now he reminds us that we had natural parents who corrected us, and we gave them reverence. Our earthly fathers had the right, because of their relationship, to discipline us, and we acquiesced. If, then, it was right and meet for us to submit to their corrections, how much more ought we to be in subjection unto our heavenly Father when He reproves us.
"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?" (verse 9). The opening "Furthermore" is really humbling and searching. One would think sufficient had been said in the previous verses to make us be submissive under and thankful for the tender discipline of our God. Is it not enough to be told that the Scriptures teach us to expect chastisements, and exhort us not to despise them? Is it not sufficient to be assured that these chastisements proceed from the very heart of our Father, being appointed and regulated by His love? No, a "furthermore" is needed by us! The Holy Spirit deigns to supply further reasons for bringing our unruly hearts into subjection. This should indeed humble us, for the implication is clear that we are slow to heed and bow beneath the rod. Yea, is it not sadly true that the older we become, the more need there is for our being chastened?
The writer has been impressed by the fact, both in his study of the Word and his observation of fellow-Christians, that, as a general rule, God uses the rod very little and very lightly upon the babes and younger members of His family, but that He employs it more frequently and severely on mature Christians. We have often heard older saints warning younger brethren and sisters of their great danger, yet it is striking to observe that Scripture records not a single instance of a young saint disgracing his profession. Recall the histories of young Joseph, the Hebrew maid in Naaman’s household, David as a stripling engaging Goliath, Daniel’s early days, and his three youthful companions in the furnace; and it will be found that all of them quitted themselves nobly. On the other hand, there are numerous examples where men in middle life and of grey hairs grievously dishonored their Lord.
It is true that young Christians are feeblest, and with rare exceptions, they know it; and therefore does God manifest His grace and power by upholding them: it is the "lambs" which He carries in His arms! But some older Christians seem far less conscious of their danger, and so God often suffers them to have a fall, that He may stain the pride of their self-glory, and that others may see it is nothing in the flesh—standing, rank, age, or attainments—which insures our safety; but that He upholds the humble and casts down the proud. David did not fall into his great sin till he had reached the prime of life. Lot did not transgress most grossly till he was an old man. Isaac seems to have become a glutton in his old age, and was as a vessel no longer "meet for the Master’s use," which rusted out rather than wore out. It was after a life of walking with God, and building the ark, that Noah disgraced himself. The worst sin of Moses was committed not at the beginning but at the end of the wilderness journey. Hezekiah became puffed up with pride near the sunset of his life. What warnings are these!
God thus shows us there is no protection in years. Yea, added years seem to call for increased chastenings. Often there is more grumbling and complaining among the aged pilgrims than the younger ones: it is true their nerves can stand less, but God’s grace is sufficient for worn-out nerves. Often there is more occupation with self and circumstances among the fathers and mothers in Israel, and less talking of Christ and His wondrous love, than there is among the babes. Yes, there is, much need for all of us to heed the opening "furthermore" of our text. Every physician will tell us there are some diseases which become more troublesome in middle life, and others which are incident to old age. The same is true of different forms of sinning. If we are more liable to certain sins in our youth, we are in greater danger of others in advanced years. Undoubtedly it is the case that the older we get, the more need there is to heed this "furthermore" which prefaces the call of our being in subjection to the Father of spirits. If we do not need more grace, certain it is that we need as much grace, when we are grown old as while we are growing up.
The aged meet with as many temptations as do young Christians. They are tempted to live in the past, rather than in the future. They are tempted to take things easier, spiritually as well as temporally, so that it has to be said of some "ye did run well." O to be like Paul "the aged," who was in full harness to the end. They are tempted to be unduly occupied with their increasing infirmities; but is it not written "the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities"! Yet, because this is affirmed, we must not think there is no longer need to earnestly seek His help. This comforting word is given in order that we should frequently and confidently pray for this very thing. If it were not recorded, we might doubt His readiness to do so, and wonder if we were asking "according to His will." Because it is recorded, when feeling our "infirmities" press most heavily upon us, let us cry, "O Holy Spirit of God, do as Thou hast said, and help us."
In this connection let us remind ourselves of that verse, "Who satisfieth thy mouth with good things: so that thy youth is renewed like the eagle’s" (Ps. 103:5) The eagle is a bird renowned for its longevity, often living to be more than a hundred years old. The eagle is also the high-soaring bird, building its nest on the mountain summit. But how is the eagle’s youth renewed? By a new crop of feathers, by the rejuvenation of its wings. And that is precisely what some middle-aged and elderly Christians need: the rejuvenation of their spiritual wings—the wings of faith, of hope, of zeal, of love for souls, of devotedness to Christ. So many leave their first love, lose the joy of their espousals, and instead of setting before younger Christians a bright example of trustfulness and cheerfulness, they often discourage by gloominess and slothfulness. Thus God’s chastenings increase in severity and frequency!
Dear friend, instead of saying, "The days of my usefulness are over," rather reason, The night cometh when no man can work; therefore I must make the most of my opportunities while it is yet called day. For your encouragement let it be stated that the most active worker in a church of which the editor was pastor was seventy-seven years old when he went there, and during his stay of three and a half years she did more for the Lord, and was a greater stimulus to him, than any other member of that church. She lived another eight years, and they were, to the very end, filled with devoted service to Christ. We believe that the Lord will yet say of her, as of another woman, "She hath done what she could." O brethren and sisters, especially you who are feeling the weight of years, heed that word, "Be not weary in well doing, for in due season, we shall reap, if we faint not" (Gal. 6:9).
"Furthermore, we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us and we gave them reverence." It is the duty of children to give the reverence of obedience unto the just commands of their parents, and the reverence of submission to their correction when disobedient. As parents have a charge from God to minister correction to their children when it is due—and not spoil them unto their ruin—so children have a command from God to receive parental reproof in a proper spirit, and not to be discontented, stubborn, or rebellious. For a child to be insubordinate under correction, evidences a double fault; the very correction shows a fault has been committed, and insubordination under correction is only adding wrong to wrong. "We gave them reverence," records the attitude of dutiful children toward their sires: they neither ran away from home in a huff, nor became so discouraged as to quit the path of duty.
From this law of the human home, the apostle points out the humble and submissive conduct which is due unto God when He disciplines His children: "Shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits?" The "much rather" points a contrast suggested by the analogy: that contrast is at least fourfold. First, the former chastening proceeded from those who were our fathers according to the flesh; the other is given by Him who is our heavenly Father. Second, the one was sometimes administered in imperfect knowledge and irritable temper; the other comes from unerring wisdom and untiring love. Third, the one was during but a brief period, when we were children; the other continues throughout the whole of our Christian life. Fourth, the one was designed for our temporal good; the other has in view our spiritual and eternal welfare. Then how much more should we readily submit unto the latter.
"Shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits?" By nature we are not in subjection. We are born into this world filled with the spirit of insubordination: as the descendants of our rebellious first parents, we inherit their evil nature. "Man is born like a wild ass’s colt" (Job 11:12). This is very unpalatable and humbling, but nevertheless it is true. As Isaiah 53:6 tells us, "we have turned every one to his own way," and that is one of opposition to the revealed will of God. Even at conversion this wild and rebellious nature is not eradicated. A new nature is given, but the old one lusts against it. It is because of this that discipline and chastisement are needed by us, and the great design of these is to bring us into subjection unto the Father of spirits. To be "in subjection unto the father" is a phrase of extensive import, and it is well that we should understand its various significations.
1. It denotes an acquiescence in God’s sovereign right to do with us as He pleases. "I was dumb, I opened not my mouth: because thou didst it" (Ps. 39:9). It is the duty of saints to be mute under the rod and silent beneath the sharpest afflictions. But this is only possible as we see the hand of God in them. If His hand be not seen in the trial, the heart will do nothing but fret and fume. "And the king said, What have I to do with you, ye sons of Zeruiah? so let him curse, because the Lord hath said unto him, Curse David. Who shall then say, Wherefore hast thou done so? And David said to Abishai, and to all his servants, Behold, my son, which came forth of my bowels, seeketh my life: How much more now may this Benjamite do it? let him alone, and let him curse, for the Lord hath bidden him" (2 Sam. 16:10, 11). What an example of complete submission to the sovereign will of the Most High was this! David knew that Shimei could not curse him without God’s permission.
"This will set my heart at rest,
What my God appoints is best."
But with rare exceptions many chastenings are needed to bring us to this place, and to keep us there.
2. It implies a renunciation of self-will. To be in subjection unto the Father presupposes a surrendering and resigning of ourselves to Him. A blessed illustration of this is found in Leviticus 10:1-3, "And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He commanded them not. And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said unto Aaron, This is it that the Lord spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh Me, and before all the people I will be glorified. And Aaron held his peace." Consider the circumstances. Aaron’s two sons, most probably intoxicated at the time, were suddenly cut off by Divine judgment. Their father had no warning to prepare him for this trial; yet he "held his peace!" O quarrel not against Jehovah: be clay in the hands of the Potter: take Christ’s yoke upon you, and learn of Him who was "meek and lowly in heart."
3. It signifies an acknowledgment of God’s righteousness and wisdom in all His dealings with us. We must vindicate God. This is what the Psalmist did: "I know, O Lord, that Thy judgments are right, and that Thou in faithfulness hast afflicted me" (Ps. 119:75). Let us see to it that Wisdom is ever justified by her children: let our confession of her be, "Righteous art Thou, O Lord, and upright are Thy judgments" (Ps. 119:137). Whatever be sent, we must vindicate the Sender of all things: the Judge of all the earth cannot do wrong. Stifle, then, the rebellious murmur, What have I done to deserve such treatment by God? and say with the Psalmist, "He hath not dealt with us after our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities" (Ps. 103:10). Why, my reader, if God dealt with us only according to the strict rule of His justice, we had been in Hell long ago: "If Thou, Lord, shouldest mark ("impute") iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?" (Ps. 130:3).
The Babylonian captivity was the severest affliction which God ever brought upon His earthly people during O.T. times, yet even then a renewed heart acknowledged God’s righteousness in it: "Now therefore, our God, the great, the mighty and the terrible God, who keepest covenant and mercy, let not all the trouble seem little before Thee, that hath come upon us, on our kings, on our princes, and our priests, and on our prophets, and on our fathers, and on all Thy people, since the time of the kings of Assyria unto this day. Howbeit Thou art just in all that is brought upon us: for Thou hast done right, but we have done wickedly" (Nehemiah 9:32, 33). God’s enemies may talk of His injustice; but let His children proclaim His righteousness. Because God is good, He can do nothing but what is right and good.
4. It includes a recognition of His care and a sense of His love. There is a sulking submission, and there is a cheerful submission. There is a fatalistic submission which takes this attitude—this is inevitable, so I must bow to it; and there is a thankful submission, receiving with gratitude whatever God may be pleased to send us. "It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn Thy statutes" (Ps. 119:71). The Psalmist viewed his chastisements with the eye of faith, and doing so he perceived the love behind them. Remember that when God brings His people into the wilderness it is that they may learn more of His sufficiency, and that when He casts them into the furnace, it is that they may enjoy more of His presence.
5. It involves an active performance of His will. True submission unto the "Father of spirits" is something more than a passive thing. The other meanings of this expression which we have considered above are more or less of a negative character, but there is a positive and active side to it as well, and it is important that this should be recognized by us. To be "in subjection" to God also means that we are to walk in His precepts and run in the way of His commandments. Negatively, we are not to be murmuring rebels; positively, we are to be obedient children. We are required to be submissive unto God’s Word, so that our thoughts are formed and our ways regulated by it. There is not only a suffering of God’s will, but a doing of it—an actual performance of duty. When we utter that petition in the prayer which the Savior has given us, "Thy will be done," something more is meant than a pious acquiescence unto the pleasure of the Almighty: it also signifies, may Thy will be performed by me. Subjection "unto the Father of spirits," then, is the practical owning of His Lordship.
Two reasons for such subjection are suggested in our text. First, because the One with whom we have to do is our Father. O how profoundly thankful we should be that the Lord God stands revealed to us as the "Father"—our Father, because the Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and He rendered perfect obedience unto Him. It is but right and meet that children should honor their parents by being in complete subjection to them: not to do so is to ignore their relationship, despise their authority, and slight their love. How much more ought we to be in subjection unto our heavenly Father: there is nothing tyrannical about Him: His commandments are not grievous: He has only our good at heart. "Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God" (1 John 3:1), then let us earnestly endeavor to express our gratitude by dutifully walking before Him as obedient children, and no matter how mysterious may be His dealings with us, say with the Savior, "The cup which My Father hath given Me, shall I not drink it?" (John 18:11).
The particular title of God found in our text calls for a brief comment. It is placed in antithesis from "fathers of our flesh," which has reference to their begetting of our bodies. True, our bodies also are a real creation on the part of God, yet in connection therewith He is pleased to use human instrumentalities. But in connection with the immaterial part of our beings, God is the immediate and alone Creator of them. As the renowned Owen said, "The soul is immediately created and infused; having no other father but God Himself," and rightly did that eminent theologian add, "This is the fundamental reason of our perfect subjection unto God in all afflictions, namely, that our very souls are His, the immediate product of His Divine power, and under his rule alone. May He not do as He wills with His own?" The expression "Father of spirits," refutes, then, the error of traducianists, who suppose that the soul, equally with the body, is transmitted by our parents. In Numbers 16:22 He is called "the God of the spirits of all flesh" which refers to all men naturally; while the "Father of spirits" in our text includes the new nature in the regenerate.
The second reason for our subjection to the Father is, because this is the secret of true happiness, which is pointed out in the final words of our text "and live." The first meaning of those words is, "and be happy." This is clear from Deuteronomy 5:33, "Ye shall walk in all the ways which the Lord your God hath commanded you, that ye may live, and that it may be well with you, and that ye may prolong your days in the land which ye shall possess:" observe the words "prolong your days" are added to "that ye may live," which obviously signifies "that ye may be happy"—compare Exodus 10:17, where Pharaoh called the miseries of the plagues "this death." Life ceases to be life when we are wretched. It is the making of God’s will our haven, which secures the true resting-place for the heart. The rebellious are fretful and miserable, but "great peace have they which love Thy law and nothing shall offend them" (Ps. 119:165). "Take My yoke upon you," said Christ, "and ye shall find rest unto your souls." Alas, the majority of professing Christians are so little in subjection to God, they have just enough religion to make them miserable.
"Shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits and live?" No doubt words of this verse point these to a designed contrast from Deuteronomy 21:18-21, "If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them: Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place . . . And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die." "The increase of spiritual life in this world, and eternal life in the world to come, is that whereunto they (the words "and live") tend" (John Owen).