10 Steps to Holiness[i] – Nine: Non-Stop Training
3 Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. 4 In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5 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. 6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”
7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
12 Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.[ii]
It’s a sad fact of pastoral ministry that many believers wander off into the weeds of life. They don’t so much lose their faith as they lose their interest. During the waves of persecution to afflicted the 1st-century Church, showing up to worship could result in the loss of your property, your job, your freedom, and even your life. In our day, showing up to church means missing a chance to golf, or indulge in some other form of entertainment, or having your kid in a soccer tournament.
But the effect is the same whether there is persecution or modern consumeristic apathy. The writer of the letter we call Hebrews makes perseverance in the Christian faith a major theme of this epistle. As he traces Christ through the history of the Old Testament, St. Autor argues that Messiah Jesus is the culmination of redemptive history, and what Christ offers is better than anything we can imagine. Therefore, we should keep on striving (12:14) for greater and deeper gospel life together.
St Author wrote in the previous verses that our life of trust into Christ is like a relay race; the saints of old have handed their batons off to us by testifying about the things God promised to them and to us. But it’s also like a marathon in that the race requires endurance and has difficulties along the route. Our race is different from any other athletic competition because we have already won. Jesus is our forerunner and he has already gained victory for us and is giving his victory to us. Because he has arrived at the heavenly city ahead of us, we are assured of making it to the finish line there. We are to fix our eyes upon Jesus only and intently study him. In this passage, St Author teaches us that holiness requires intense, often unpleasant training. Training has: (1) a point; (2) a privilege; (3) a purpose; and, (3) products.
One famous preacher compared Heb. 12:4-13 to a lighthouse. No one really notices it much in the light of day. But in the darkness, when storms begin to blast, the lighthouse blazes with a light to help us find our way.[iii] St Author is shedding light on why Christians experience the very same trials and problems that everyone on earth experiences, and sometimes even suffer because of their trust into Christ.
When the hard comes, when grief begins to wash over you like waves of nausea, those who trust Jesus can come to this text and find real encouragement (not fake platitudes). St Author doesn’t ignore the fact that life is full of suffering and that Christians will suffer for their faith (he makes a reference to being beaten or whipped). He’s tender, explaining how the Lord uses these experiences to train us to be excellent testifiers, to be spiritual MMA fighters.
Like it or not, if you truly trust into Jesus you are in an intense fight. But you may not be seeing your opponent too clearly. St Author says:
Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood (12:3-4).
The metaphor shifts from racing in 12:1-2 to fighting in our text this morning. One of the popular Olympic sports of the day was pankration, a mixed martial art contest that was only won when the opponent was beaten, or choked unconscious, or killed. The only rules in pankration were no eye gouging and no biting, every other form of injury was perfectly acceptable.
You are involved in an intense and deadly competition. But your opponent is NOT the government, the people you disagree with, the person at work who picks on you, the guy at church you can’t stand, or even the illness with which you or a loved one struggle. Those are punches and choke holds. Your opponent is sin – not everyone else’s, but your own. Jesus said:
Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? …first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye (Matt. 7:3-5).
You must constantly train for this fight. Your goal is to strengthen your trust because “whatever does not proceed from trust is sin” (Rom. 14:23). Paul describes the fight this way:
For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Rom. 7:22-25).
St Author warned in verses. 1-2 that things in life can weigh you down as you run the race to glory. He said that sin can tangle your feet and cause you to stumble and fall. It can blind you to Jesus and lead you off the course. It can entangle you by hiding down deep in your heart – even in the areas you consider your best assets. Now he ups the ante. You’re not just running a race; you’re in an intense, no-holds-barred cage fight. It’s serious. It’s very, very dangerous. But, he says, it is a glorious privilege to enter the ring! Only God’s children get to fight in this arena, and God’s children always win!
The Unique Son (4b)
St Author writes, “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (12:4). Although these discouraged readers had endured taunting, jail, loss of property, and other humiliations, they would and could never suffer like Jesus. The Son suffered more intensely than they could ever know! There was salvation in his suffering. There is only training in ours.
We will spend eternity studying Jesus’ perfection and praising him for his willingness to struggle with all of the sins of his people and to earn our victory. Sin is God-defiant. Jesus is sin-defiant. If the perfect Son of God endured the cross, how much more ought we expect to endure hard training?
Family Business (5-9)
Intense training and fighting with sin is part of the family business. When you are born again, you are born into a family of famous fighters. You can see many of them portrayed in the Gallery of Trust in Hebrews 11. St Author writes:
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’ (12:5-6).
That word discipline means “training.” It does not mean “judgment” or “punishment.” In the OT, the word meant training in Torah. If you trust Jesus, God is not angry with you! Ever! If you are in Christ, all of God’s anger at your sin and all his punishment for it was poured out on Jesus at the cross. Jesus took your beatings for you.
That is SO contrary to how we self-absorbed humans think, many professing Christians just won’t believe it. They’re pretty sure God is just like our human parents who blew up every now and then over things we said or did; they hated our music or the slang we used because, “Back when I was your age, we didn’t talk like that, listen to that kind of music, or [fill in the blank].”
We’re pretty sure God is only going to praise us and really love us if we are behaving and achieving the way our human parents demanded. And when we behave, good things happen. Daddy gives us money; he lets us use the car and come home 30 minutes past our usual curfew. He takes the family out to dinner to celebrate our good report cards.
The problem for the first readers of Hebrews is that they HAD behaved well and achieved much, yet the bad stuff kept on coming. In 10:32-35, St Author noted how they endured scorn, jail, and loss of stuff and they all came through with joy. But these kids were beginning to think Daddy didn’t love them anymore because bad things were still happening. Maybe they weren’t trying hard enough to make Daddy happy. Maybe Daddy was just too hard to please. So maybe they needed to find a better religion and join a happier family with a nicer Daddy.
But Daddy isn’t mad. He is a world-class fight trainer and his training has a purpose. He knows what he’s doing even if you don’t. He is the Father of spirits, the Creator. Because he created you, he knows how your body and mind work and what kind of training you must endure in order to be in world-class shape. You could be as Godly and righteous as Job but still need serious training.
Job was a righteous man, but through his intensely unpleasant training, he learned things about God he could never have known or considered otherwise. He learned a longing for Jesus and he learned his true hope for rightness would come at the resurrection when he saw Jesus face to face:
For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me! (Job 19:25-27).
Job’s one true hope can be yours too if you will but trust into the perfect life and sacrificial death of the resurrected Messiah Jesus this morning.
The training has a purpose: “he trains us for our good, that we may share his holiness” (12:10). St Author’s point is that Daddy uses the bad stuff in life to train you. Daddy constantly trains you for your fight because he loves you. He wants you to be and remain in top fighting condition; and when you’re constantly training, the enemy’s punches won’t knock you out and his strangle holds won’t kill you.
Paul puts it this way;
So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (1 Cor. 9:26-27).
It is a sign of privilege to train with Jesus, the greatest fighter the universe has ever seen. It is an amazing privilege to be born again into his family. It is an almost-unimaginable privilege to be a brother or sister of the reigning, eternal champion. When you train in God’s gym, in Jesus’ Kingdom, you will be sore. You will get hit. It won’t seem pleasant all the time. You must and shall be pushed beyond your limits. But your trainer is not some impersonal dictator; he is your brother. He loves you more intensely than you can comprehend.
If you are suffering, if you are bitter or angry or discouraged about anything right now (and if you’re not, St Author assures you that you will be), then you are being trained. Perhaps because there is something you have held onto more tightly than God. When we depend on ANYTHING smaller than Jesus to provide us with the meaning, the security, and significance, and the value we long for, God loves us enough to take it away. He will take it away not because he’s angry but because he loves you infinitely more than you could ever love yourself.
God trains his children to have their identity in Jesus, not in their own sense of security or in their own abilities or talents or in the things they think will make them happy or comfortable. Father trains us by tearing down the “kingdom of me” and replacing it with hope in his Kingdom and its King (Messiah Jesus).
Sharing in Holiness
How do we share his holiness? We share his holiness by fixing our eyes on Jesus and intently studying him! We look to thousands of different things every day to make us feel like we matter. But looking at ANYTHING other than Christ for your significance makes you a SLAVE to those things. We share in his holiness when he trains us by stripping away all the things, attitudes, demands, and ideas to which we have enslaved ourselves. The reason for much of our pain and bitterness is that God is prying open our hands and taking away things we have held onto more tightly than him.
Paul tells the Corinthians:
to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ (2 Cor. 12:7-9).
Paul doesn’t tell us what his suffering involved. It doesn’t matter. The point was Paul didn’t like what God liked. Paul’s training involved dropping a few pounds of pride so he could be made strong in his weakness. In other words, “Paul, your intelligence does not make you worthy. The unspeakable revelation you have received does not make you worthy. YOU are not important. JESUS is important, and Jesus does not wear a ‘What would Paul do’ bracelet.”
God accomplished the greatest thing in all of space/time and in all of eternity through a gory, torturous, miserable, painful, insulting, and thoroughly unjust death by crucifixion! All of life, the universe, and everything turn around that one event! No mere human struggle – no matter what God calls you to endure – can come close to what Jesus endured on the cross for the joy of redeeming you. That’s what God meant when he said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you”.
God trains you through suffering and trials to drive you out of the kingdom of self. The kingdom of self is a costume kingdom, it does a perversely brilliant job of masquerading as the kingdom of God. We are all certain that if WE prefer it, if WE want it, if WE demand it, then it must be something God likes and wants. We can THINK we’re looking at Jesus when we’re really looking at ourselves. Training beats us and conditions us into seeing Jesus and making HIS Kingdom life part of our muscle memory.
God trains his children to fight sin. But interestingly, they fight through peace. Peace and righteousness are the products of training.
“For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (12:11).
All your suffering, all your unpleasant experiences (think of the death of all of Job’s children, Paul’s beatings and imprisonment) are training in your fight against your sin nature and against the evil one who desires to sift you like wheat. But there is a fruit that grows from your hard training. Isn’t it interesting that St Author says suffering produces fruit when it was through the choice of a forbidden fruit that all of mankind’s suffering began?
The fruit of this painful training is peaceful righteousness. Calvin (who suffered the death of his only child and numerous illnesses throughout his life) writes:
And by the fruit of righteousness he means the fear of the Lord and a godly and holy life, of which the cross is the teacher. He calls it peaceable, because in adversities we are alarmed and disquieted, being tempted by impatience, which is always noisy and restless; but being chastened, we acknowledge with a resigned mind how profitable did that become to us which before seemed bitter and grievous.[iv]
All our training to fight sin and the evil one produces peace, not fighting. Your prize is a deeper relationship with God and people in which peace reigns supreme. The “kingdom of me” is an agitated, irritable land ready to fly off the handle and go on the attack at the slightest offense; but the Kingdom of Jesus is an utterly peaceful land. In which kingdom do you spend most of your time? Where are you living this morning? In God’s gym, Jesus’ kingdom, you train through suffering to be a peacemaker.
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace (Jas. 3:17-18).
This fruit comes later; not now. That’s not good salesmanship in our instant age where we want everything now. “I want patience and I want it NOW!” But training is a life-long process. Progress is often slow. Peaceful righteousness comes only with a lifetime of often-brutal training. But it DOES come. So, take heart. Keep on training. Keep on repenting. Keep on looking to Jesus.
St Author finally shouts for us to catch our second wind, get up off the floor, and get back to training.
Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed (12:12-13).
The product of training is not brokenness but healing through the all-sufficient grace of God. The Gospel is as sweet as you and I are willing to taste it by owning our own sourness. It can become tastier to you every day even during the most painful training.
[iii] Phillips, 541.
[iv] John Calvin and John Owen, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 320.