An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
Would any Christian in his right mind dare to pray, Let me not be afflicted, no matter what good it should do me? And if he were unwilling and afraid to pray thus, why should he murmur when it so falls out? Alas, what a wide breach there is, usually, between our praying and the rest of our conduct. Again; if our rescuer dislocated our shoulder when pulling us out of the water in which we were drowning, would we be angry with him? Of course not. Then why fret against the Lord when He afflicts the body in order to better the soul? If God takes away outward comforts and fills us with inward peace, if he removes our worldly wealth but imparts to us more of the true riches, then, instead of having ground for complaint, we have an abundant cause for thanksgiving and praise. Then why should I fear to enter the dark shaft of tribulation if persuaded that it leads to the gold mines of spiritual experience.
In Scripture, afflictions are compared to fire that purges away the dross (1 Pet. 1:7), to the fan which drives away the chaff (Matthew 3:12), to a pruning-hook which cuts off superfluous branches and makes more fruitful the others that remain (John 15:2), to physic that purges away poisonous matter (Isa. 27:9), to plowing and harrowing the ground that it may be prepared to receive good seed (Jer. 4:3). Then why should we be so upset when God is pleased to use the fire upon us in order to remove our dross, to employ the fan so as to winnow away the chaff, to take the pruning-hook to lop off the superfluities of our souls, to give us physic to purge out our corruptions and filth, to drive the plow into us so as to break up our fallow ground and to destroy the weeds which grow in our souls? Should we not rather rejoice that He will not leave us alone in our carnality, but rather fit us to become partakers of His holiness?
A little child requires much coaxing (at times, something more!) in order to make him take his medicine. He may be very ill, and mother may earnestly assure him that the unpleasant potion will bring sure relief; but the little one cries out, "I cannot take it, it is so nasty." But adults, generally, need not have the doctor argue and plead with them: they will swallow the bitterest remedy if convinced that it will do them good. The application of this to spiritual matters is obvious. Those Christians who are but spiritual babes, fret and fume when called upon to endure Divine chastisement, knowing not the gains they will receive if it be accepted in the right spirit. But those who have grown in grace, and become men in Christ, who know that all things work together for good to them that love God, and who have learned by experience the precious fruits which issue from sanctified afflictions, accept from God the bitterest cup, and thank Him for it.
But alas, many of God’s people are but infants experimentally, and need much coaxing to reconcile them to the cup of trial. Therefore is it needful to present to our consideration one argument after another. Such is the case here in Hebrews 12: if one line of reasoning does not suffice, perhaps another will. The Christian is very skeptical and takes much convincing. We have heard a person say to one who claims he has done, or can do, some remarkable thing, "You must show me before I will believe you." Most of us are very much like that in connection with spiritual things. Though the Scriptures assure us, again and again, that chastisement proceeds from our Father’s love, and is designed for our good, yet we are slow, very slow, to really believe it. Therefore does the apostle here proceed from one consideration to another so as to assure the hearts and establish the faith of his afflicted brethren upon this important subject.
O that our hearts might be so taught by the Spirit, our understandings so enlightened, our faith so strengthened by Him, that we would be more grateful and increasingly thankful for the merciful discipline of our Father. What a proof of His love is this, that in His chastening of us, His object is to bring us nearer Himself and make us more like His blessed Son. The more highly we prize health, the more willing are we to take that which would cure our sickness; and the more we value holiness (which is the health of our souls) the gladder shall we be for that which is a means to increase the same in us. We are on a low plane of spiritual experience, if we do nothing more than simply "bow" to God’s hand. Scripture says, "Giving thanks always, for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Eph. 5:20); and again it exhorts us "Rejoice in the Lord alway" (Phil. 4:4). We are to "glory in tribulation" (Rom. 5:3), and we shall when we perceive more clearly and fully what blessed fruits are brought forth under the pruning knife.
"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" (v. 10). This is a continuation of what was before us in the previous verse. A further reason is given why Christians should be "in subjection unto" their heavenly Father, when His correcting rod is laid upon them. Not only is it becoming for them so to do, because of the relationship which exists between them: but it is also meet they should act thus, because of the gains they receive thereby. The consideration which the apostle now presents to the attention of the afflicted saints is really a double one. First, the chastisement we received from our earthly parents had reference mainly to our good in this life, whereas the disciplinary dealings of our heavenly Father looks forward to the life to come (2 Cor. 4:17). Second, the chastisement of our earthly parents was often a matter of their caprice and sometimes issued from irritability of temper, but the rod of our heavenly Father is wielded by infinite goodness and wisdom, and has in view our well being.
We regard the words "for they verily for a few days chastened us" as referring not so much to the brief season of our childhood, but more to the fact that our parents had only our temporal interests in view: whereas God has our eternal welfare before Him. "The apostle seems to bring in this circumstance to contrast the dealings of earthly parents with those of God. One of the circumstances is, that the corrections of earthly parents had a much less important object than those of God. They related to this life—a life so brief that it may be said to continue but a "few days." Yet, in order to secure the benefit to be derived for so short a period from fatherly correction, we submitted without murmuring. Much more cheerfully ought we to submit to that discipline from the hand of our heavenly Father which is designed to extend its benefits through eternity" (A. Barnes).
The added words "after their own pleasure" or "as seemed good" to them, points another contrast between the disciplinary dealings of our earthly parents and those of our heavenly Father. In their infirmity, sometimes the rod was used upon us in a fit of anger, rather than from a loving desire to reform our manners. "Meaning that it was sometimes clone arbitrarily, or under the influence of passion. This is an additional reason why we should submit to God. We submitted to our earthly parents, though their correction was sometimes passionate, and was designed to gratify their own pleasure rather than to promote our good. There is much of this kind of punishment in families; but there in none of it under the administration of God. ‘But He for our profit:’ never from passion, from caprice, from the love of power or superiority, but always for our good" (A. Barnes).
Now the particular contribution which our present verse makes to the subject of chastisement is, the apostle here makes known the general end or design of God in the same, namely "our profit." And let it be pointed out that whatsoever He purposes must surely come to pass, for He will make the means He employs effectual unto the accomplishment of His end. Many are the blessings comprehended and various are the fruits produced through and by means of Divine chastisement. This word "for our profit" is a very embracing one, including the development of our characters, the enrichment of our spiritual lives, a closer conformity to the image of Christ. The same truth is found again in the "that we might be partakers of His holiness:" that our lusts might be mortified, our graces vivified, our souls sanctified. Whatever be the form, degree, or duration of our afflictions, all is ordered by infinite wisdom so as to secure this object. But to particularize: the benefits of Divine chastisement—
1. It weans us from the world. One of the greatest surprises of the writer’s Christian life in connection with his fellow-saints has been, not their ignorance, nor even their inconsistencies, but their earthliness, their reluctance to leave this world. As "strangers and pilgrims" we should be longing and yearning for our Heavenly Home; as those who are away from Him whom they love best, we should desire to "depart and be with Him" (Phil. 1:23). Paul did. Christ has promised to return for His people, yet how few of them are daily crying, "Even so, come, Lord Jesus." How rarely we hear them saying, in the language of the mother of Sisera, "Why is His chariot so long in coming? why tarry the wheels of His chariot?’’
"And all the trials here we see
Should make us long to be with Thee."
Scripture speaks of this world as a "dry and thirsty land, where no water is" (Ps. 63:1), and God intends for us to prove this in our experiences. His Word also affirms that this world is a "dark place" (2 Pet. 1:19), and He means for us to discover that this is so.
One would think that after the soul had once seen the King in His beauty, it would henceforth discover no attractions elsewhere. one would suppose that once we had quenched our thirst at the Fountain of living waters, we would no more want to drink from the unsatisfying and polluted cisterns of this world. Surely now that we have experienced a taste and foretaste of Heaven itself, we shall be repelled and nauseated by the poor husks this world has to offer. But alas! the "old man" is still in us, unchanged; and though Divine grace subdues his activities, still he is very much alive. It is because of this that we are called on to "crucify the flesh with its affections and lusts." And this is not only an unpalatable, but a very hard task. Therefore does God in His mercy help us: help us by chastenings, which serve to loosen the roots of our souls downward and tighten the anchor-hold of our hearts Heavenward.
This God does in various ways. Sometimes He causes us to lose our confidence in and draw us away from fellowship with worldings by receiving cruel treatment at their hands. "Come out from among them, and be ye separate" is the Lord’s word to His people. But they are slow to heed; oftentimes they must be driven out. So with worldly pleasures: God often makes the grapes of earthly joys bitter to our taste, so that we should no longer seek after them. It is earthly disappointments and worldly disillusionments which make us sigh for our Heavenly Home. While the Hebrews enjoyed the land of Goshen they were content: hard and cruel bondage was needed to make them ready to leave for the promised land. We were once familiar with a Christian who had formed a habit of meeting each worldly difficulty or trial to the flesh by saying, "This is only another nail in my coffin." But that is a very gloomy way of viewing things: rather should the children of God say after each trial or affliction, "That severs another strand in the rope which binds me to this world, and makes me long all the more for Heaven.
2. It casts us back the more upon God. By nature we are filled with a spirit of independency. The fallen sons of Adam are like wild asses’ colts. Chastisement is designed to empty us of our self-sufficiency, to make us feel weakness and helplessness. If "in their affliction they will seek Me early" (Hos. 5:15), then surely afflictions are for our "profit." Trials and troubles often drive us to our knees; sickness and sorrow make us seek unto the Lord. It is very noticeable in the four Gospels how rarely men and women that were in health and strength sought out Christ; it was trouble and illness which brought them to the great Physician. A nobleman came to Christ—why? Because his son was at the point of death. Jairus sought out the Master—why? Because his little daughter was so low. The Canaanitish woman interviewed the Lord Jesus—why? On behalf of her tormented daughter. The sisters of Lazarus sent a message to the absent Savior—why? Because their brother was sick.
Afflictions may be very bitter, but they are a fine tonic for the soul, and are a medicine which God often uses on us. Most vividly is this illustrated in Psalm 107—read carefully verses 11 to 28. Note that it is when men are "brought down," when they are "afflicted," when they are "at their wits’ end" that they "cry unto the Lord in their trouble." Yes, it is "trouble" which makes us turn unto the Lord, not in a mechanical and formal way, but in deep earnestness. Remember that it is the "effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man that availeth much." When you observe that the fire in your room is getting dull, you do not always put on more coal, but simply stir with the poker; so God often uses the black poker of adversity in order that the flames of devotion may burn more brightly.
Ah, my brethren, all of us delight in being made to lie down in the "green pastures" and being led beside the "still waters;" yet it would not be for God’s glory nor for our own highest good to luxuriate spiritually at all times. And why not? Because our hearts would soon be more occupied with the blessings rather than with the Blesser Himself. Oftentimes the sheep have to be brought into the dry and desolate wilderness, that they may be made more conscious of their dependency upon the Shepherd. May we not discern here one reason why some saints so quickly lose their assurance: they are occupied more with their graces or comfortable feelings than they are with the Giver of them. God is a jealous God, and will not tolerate idols in the hearts of His people. A sense of our acceptance in Christ is indeed a blessed thing, yet it becomes a hindrance if it be treasured more highly than the Savior Himself.
3. It makes the promises of God more precious to us. Trouble often acts on us like a sharp knife which opens the truth of God to us and our hearts unto the truth. Experience unlocks passages which were otherwise closed. There is many a text in the Bible which no commentator can helpfully expound to a child of God: it must be interpreted by experience. Paul wrote his profoundest epistles while in prison; John was "in tribulation" on Patmos when he received the Revelation. If you go down into a deep well or mine in the daytime, you will then see the shining of stars which were not visible from the earth’s surface; so God often brings us low in order that we may perceive the shining beauty of some of His comforting assurances. Note how Jacob, in Genesis 32, pleaded God’s promises when he heard that Esau was approaching with four hundred men! The promises of resurrection mean far more unto Christians when some of their loved ones have been removed by death.
"When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned" (Isa. 43:2) means far more to afflicted souls than it can to those who are not under the rod. So, too, the many "fear not" promises are most valued when our strength fails us and we are ready to sink under despair. As the late C.H. Spurgeon was wont to say, "There are some verses written, as it were, in a secret ink, which must be held before the fire of adversity before they become visible." There are many passages in Job, the Psalms, and the Lamentations of Jeremiah which do not appeal to one while the sun is shining; but which, in times of adversity, are like the welcome beams of the moon on a dark night. It was his painful thorn in the flesh which taught Paul the blessedness of that text, "My grace is sufficient for thee: for My strength is made perefct in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9).
4. It qualifies us to sympathize with others. If we have never trod the vale of sorrow and affliction we are really unable to "weep with those that weep." There are some surgeons who would be more tender if they had suffered from broken bones themselves. If we have never known much trouble, we can be but poor comforters to others. Even of our Savior it is written, "For in that He Himself hath suffered being tempted He is able to succor them that are tempted" (Heb. 2:18). Bunyan could never have written the book which he did, unless God had permitted the Devil to tempt and buffet him severely for so many years. How clearly is all this brought out in 2 Corinthians 1:4: "Who comforteth us in all our tribulations, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God." Luther frequently said, "Three things make a good preacher: prayer, meditation, and temptation."
5. It demonstrates to us the blessedness and sufficiency of Divine grace. "My grace is sufficient for thee, for My strength is make perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9). But in order to prove this, we have to be brought into the place of severe testing and trial, and made to feel our own incompetency and nothingness. Brethren, if you have prospered in business all your lives, and have always had an easy time financially, then it is probable you know very little about God’s strength being perfected in your weakness. If you have been healthy all your lives and have never suffered much weakness and pain, then you are not likely to know much about the strength of God. If you have never been visited with trying situations which bring you to your wits’ end, or by heartrending bereavements, you may not have discovered much of the sufficiency of Divine grace. You have read about it in books, or heard others speak of it, but this is a very different thing from having an experimental acquaintance of it for yourself. It is much tribulation which brings out the sufficiency of God’s strength to support under the severest trials, and demonstrates that His grace can sustain the heart under the heaviest losses.
It is in the stormiest weather that a captain gives most heed to the steering of his ship; so it is in seasons of stress and grief that Christians pay most attention to, "Let us therefore come boldly unto the Throne of Grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Heb. 4:16). If Israel had journeyed directly to Canaan, they would have missed the tender care of Jehovah in the wilderness. If Lazarus had not died, Martha and Mary would not have received such a demonstration of Christ as the Resurrection and the Life. And if you, my brother, my sister, had not been cast into the furnace of affliction, you would not have known the nearness and preciousness of His presence with you there. Yes, God intends us to prove the reality and sufficiency of His grace.
6. It develops our spiritual graces. This is clearly set forth in that familiar passage Romans 5:3-5: "We glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope; and hope maketh not ashamed." This "rejoicing" is not in tribulations considered in themselves, but because the Christian knows they are appointed by his Father, and because of their beneficial effects. Three of these effects or spiritual graces thus developed are here mentioned. First, tribulation worketh "patience." Patience never thrives except under buffetings and disappointments: it is not even called into exercise while things are going smoothly and pleasantly. Sanctified tribulations call into activity that strength and fortitude which is evidenced by a submissive endurance of suffering. The patience here referred to signifies deliverance from murmuring, refusing to take things into our own hands (which only causes additional trouble), a contented waiting for God’s time of deliverance, and a persevering continuance in the path of duty.
Second, patience worketh experience, that is a vital experience of the reality of what we profess; a personal acquaintance with that which before we knew only theoretically; an experience of the sufficiency of Divine grace to support and sustain; an experience of God’s faithfulness, that He is "a very present help in trouble"; an experience of the preciousness of Christ, such as the three Hebrews had in the furnace. The Greek word for "experience" also means "the obtaining of proof." The patient submission which tribulation works in the saint proves both to him and to his brethren the reality of his trust in God: it makes manifest the fact that the faith which he professes is genuine. Instead of his faith being overcome, it triumphs. The test of a ship is to weather the storm; so it is with faith. Real faith ever says, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him." Third, experience worketh hope. This is a grace which anticipates the future. While circumstances are as we like them, our outlook is mainly confined to the present: but sorrows and trials make us long for the future bliss. "As an eagle stirreth up her nest... so the Lord led Israel" (Deut. 32:11, 12). God removes us from our comfortable resting places for the purpose of teaching us to use the wings of hope.
7. It brings us into fellowship with the sufferings of Christ. The cross is the symbol of Christian discipleship. Like the scars which the wounded soldier prizes above all other distinctions, so our sufferings are the proof of our oneness with Christ (Rom. 8:17). Not only so, they make us appreciate the more what He endured for us. While we have plenty, we cannot properly estimate or appreciate the poverty which our Savior endured. While we enjoy a comfortable bed we cannot truly sympathize with Him who "had not where to lay His head." It is not till some familiar friend, on whom we counted, has basely betrayed our trust, that we can enter into something of what the Savior suffered through the perfidy of Judas. It is only when some brother has denied you, that you begin to understand what Christ felt, when Peter denied Him. As we, in some small measure, obtain an experimental acquaintance with such trials, it makes Christ increasingly precious to us, and enables us to appreciate the more all that He went through on our behalf. In a coming day we are going to share His throne; now we are privileged to taste His cross.
If, then, trials and tribulations, under God, produce such delightful fruits, then welcome chastisements that are for "our profit." Let the rains of disappointment come if they water the plants of spiritual graces. Let the winds of adversity blow if they serve to root more securely in grace the trees of the Lord’s planting. Let the sun of prosperity be eclipsed if this brings us into closer communion with the Light of life. Oh, brethren and sisters, however distasteful they are to the flesh, chastisements are not to be dreaded, but welcomed, for they are designed to make us "partakers of God’s holiness."