Much of what we believe about discipline in the church is informed by the old covenant. For instance, if you think God’s discipline entails punishment in any shape or form, you’re living in the past. You haven’t seen the cross (Is 53:5).
Think about it. If the cross was the once and final solution for sin Hebrews says it is, then you would not expect to find any scriptures in the new covenant linking sin with divine punishment. And indeed, there are none – except this one:
For those whom the Lord loves he disciplines, and he scourges every son whom he receives. (Heb 12:6, NASB)
As we saw in our last post, this may be a badly mangled New Testament quote of an Old Testament proverb. It’s like reading Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech in Chinese and finding the last line says, “Thank God almighty, we are not free at all!” It’s jarring, it’s wrong, and it runs totally against the context.
Am I saying the Bible is wrong? No, we don’t have to go that far.
As I explained last time, my best guess is the problem was introduced during translation. I am convinced that the author of Hebrews had a profound revelation of God with-no-whip. The picture he gives us is of a good God sitting on a throne of grace offering us grace and mercy in our time of need (Heb 4:16). And when we go astray – what happens then? Does God come charging after us with a whip? No, he deals with us gently (Heb 5:2) as a loving father deals with his sons (Heb 12:8). The suggestion that God metaphorically rips shreds off us with a flagellum is slanderous and ridiculous.
To help you settle this in your own mind, I want to give you…
7 reasons why God never scourges his children
1. In the Bible, the word for scourge (mastigoō) appears in 7 times in 7 verses. In every verse apart from Hebrews 12:6 it is associated with unjust punishment inflicted by the unjust upon the just – either Jesus (Mt 20:19, Mar 10:34, Lu 18:33, Joh 19:1) or those who follow him (Mat 10:7, 23:34). Given this context, to say that a God scourges his sons implies that God acts like the unjust, which he doesn’t.
2. The context of Hebrews 12 is being persecuted for the faith (see Hebrews 11). There is something twisted in telling a group of believers facing the threat of scourging that God is the one scourging them. The author writes to encourage them (Heb 12:3,5). Hearing that God is the one persecuting you is not encouraging. It’s discouraging. It doesn’t fit the context.
3. Nor does it make any sense. If God scourges us then the hurts of Heb 12:11 are the hurts of his scourging. But the actual hurts being experienced were the hurts of persecution, not sickness or anything you might wrongly accuse God of giving you. Believers have always been persecuted for the gospel and sometimes that persecution takes the form of flogging (see Heb 11:36). To read Heb 12:6 as scourging is like saying, “God is punishing you for believing in him.”
4. In Biblical times, scourging was reserved for slaves and criminals, not sons and citizens. Jesus and Paul were both unjustly scourged. Paul never says, “I was scourged for my good.” Instead, he resisted scourging (Acts 22:25), as should every free man and woman.
5. Hebrews 12 says God disciplines or trains us as a father. I don’t know any father, good or bad, who scourges his kids the way the Romans scourged Jesus. It’s a metaphor that doesn’t apply at any level. God doesn’t train us with whips. He nurtures us. The Biblical picture of godly fathering is this: “And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph 6:4, KJV). Scourging is not nurturing.
6. There was one father in the Bible who was famous for using whips and rods, and that was Solomon. We know he used the rod of correction because he tells us in Proverbs (13:24, 22:15, 23:14-15, 29:15). Solomon evidently had old-school views regarding corporal punishment yet even he didn’t whip his sons. He said whips were for horses (Prov 26:3). I’ve had people tell me they won’t respond to God unless he whips them. That’s like saying, “I’m as dumb as a horse.”
7. Jesus met plenty of people in need of correction and discipline. How many of those people did Jesus scourge? How many did he afflict with pain, sickness, trials, or suffering? Zero. If Jesus was ever going to whip someone, he might’ve whipped the Pharisees, but he didn’t. He even said the Pharisees belonged to their father the devil (Joh 8:44). If God won’t scourge the devil’s kids, he surely won’t whip his own.
The terrifying God of Hebrews
There are 303 verses in Hebrews and, in my opinion, 99.7% of them were translated into Greek more or less accurately. Why am I so worked up about one solitary verb? Because a whip-toting monster-of-a-god has been created on the basis of that one verb!
God is dangerous enough without us adding to the Bible. For those who reject his grace Hebrews describes him as a “consuming fire” (Heb 12:29), and warns that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31).
Am I trying to balance my words by painting God as both loving and terrifying, as though he were double-minded? No – I’m saying that a perfect God cannot coexist with imperfect man and the only way we can relate to him is through his free and perfect grace. Those who try to approach God on their own imperfect merits will find him unaccommodating and consequently terrifying.
The Hebrews of old knew this – they had seen this consuming God at the untouchable Mount Sinai when the old covenant was given. They were terrified and wouldn’t draw near. But we have not returned to Mount Sinai. We have come to Mount Zion and to Jesus the mediator of a new and better covenant (Heb 12:24).
To make sense of Hebrews, you need to understand that it sends two messages to two kinds of people.
(i) For those uncertain about the grace of God, the message is: “See to it that you don’t refuse the one who speaks” (Heb 12:25). Through the book of Hebrews God draws the ungodly to himself, urging them to abandon the sinking ship of self-sufficiency and to enter his rest.
(ii) For those who have already entered, the message is “Draw near – approach the throne of grace with confidence” (Heb 4:14).
But the ungodly won’t come in and the saint won’t draw near if they believe God is waiting for them with a whip of scourging. That is not the gospel and it is not the message of Hebrews.
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