“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, 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.” (Heb. 12:1-2)
The opening verse of Hebrews chapter 12 give a vision and a context for the writer’s discussion of God’s discipline. First, we must see that sin is the weight that keeps us from running the race to the fullest of our ability. Sin here is not addressed as shame to be hidden or fearful of. You can hear the heart of the writing: “put away your sin, it’s weighing you down, it’s holding you back from what God has for you.” Our call against sin is only Godly and effective if it is an invitation into God’s best and not a condemnation into God’s worst. This is mandated because, “There is now, therefore, no condemnation in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 8:1)
The second highlight in the verses above is the communal aspect of our life in Christ. We are never alone, but are “surround by so great a cloud of witnesses” and “looking to Jesus” we are able to run this race. Not only are we called to be a part of the body of Christ on earth which practices the gifts of the spirit for the building up of the faithful, but we are also surrounded by a heavenly witness. I am reminded of the powerful story in the Old Testament when Elisha and his servant are surround by a great army who has come out against them. Elisha is as calm as Jesus sleeping in the bottom of the storm tossed boat, but his servant cries out, “What’re we gonna do?” with the echo of the same desperation from Jesus’ disciple, “Don’t you care that we are gonna die?” Elisha simply prays that God will open the servants eyes to see that, “those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” (1 Kings 2:16) Do we really live our lives like this? Do we confront our personal mountains with confidence and faith that we are surrounded by a powerful heavenly host?
It’s in this context that God’s discipline is addressed. It is not addressed in a spirit of condemnation and it is in no way addressed as God punishing a lone individual who is expected to overcome sin on their own. The last major point I want to address in this verse is the image of Christ going to the cross “for the joy that was set before him.” Now here I find it necessary to make one very important distinction that will help us to understand God’s discipline in our own lives. I do not believe that the cross was God’s divine will in the sense that God orchestrated and caused the cross to occur so that we might be saved and Jesus might, “learn obedience through the things he suffered.” Rather, I believe that it was God’s divine will to allow our free choice of the rejection and crucifixion of his son. God sent Jesus to preach the way of peace, knowing full well that we would reject him and his teaching and crucify him by our own sin. “He took on him the sins of us all,” is more literal in this image as our sin literally condemned him to the cross. So we see the distinction here is that God can use our sin and the results of that sin to save the world and teach obedience in Christ. Now, Christ was perfect, and yet he was learning obedience. This is the mystery of incarnation and it is so good for us because we do not have a high priest who does not know our suffering and temptations. Jesus can teach us obedience in suffering because he learned the same way. The important point to remember throughout is that Jesus did all these things for the “joy that was set before him.” The key to growth through God’s discipline is to remember that it is for the joy that God has set before us. Discipline’s purpose is to remove that which keeps us from joy and fulfillment in Christ.
One last note on this seeming paradox about enduring suffering and giving up sin in exchange for joy… There is a parable Jesus tells that seems to sum up what is meant by these things: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Matthew 13:44) This is what the discipline of God calls us into: joyful surrender of all that we have. “And 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.’” (Heb. 12:5-6)
This is so powerful. God is using the trials and tribulations in our life to train us in the way we should go as a father would for his children.
So what does this Godly discipline look like? It looks like bringing everything that we experience before God in humble submission to him. Are you experiencing financial difficulties? Bring it before God, get counsel from a wise brother in Christ. Maybe God desires to teach you to trust him, to steward your finances well, to rejoice in all things. Are you experiencing relational difficulties with your spouse? Bring it before God, get counsel from a wise father in the church. Maybe God is teaching you how to prefer others before yourself, maybe God is teaching you to build your house on the Rock instead of on your own ability to maintain yourself. Are you struggling with a sin pattern in your life? Bring it to the Lord, submit yourself to a leader in your church. Maybe God desires to teach you grace and humility and the life-saving power of the Holy Spirit.
God’s discipline is not an act of punishment that seeks to cause pain, rather, it is the transformation of the tribulations in this life into the life changing lessons of how to be like Jesus. God takes our earthly suffering and uses it like fire to forge us into people who can enjoy perfect freedom and communion with him. Simplest definition of the discipline of God is this: God’s miraculous ability to transform the suffering resultant in the effects of sin (our own sin and that of others) into the lessons that shape us into who he has called us to be. Even the effects of sin and a broken world are used by God to meet us and heal us and change us. Does this mean that you must look for sin whenever you experience tribulation? No, instead look for God and what he has provided you in this time for your benefit and sustenance. The ultimate result is the kingdom of God in your heart, a kingdom that cannot be shaken. The result of God’s discipline is “the removal of things that are shaken… in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Heb. 12:27-29) What then remains? “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor. 13:13)