June 6: Hebrews 12:5ff

Hebrews 12:5ff

In the closing chapters of Hebrews, the author provides a general exhortation to believers, rooted in a call to remain faithful to Christ even in the face of suffering and persecution. As is typical in early Christian writings of the period, this exhortation includes ethical-religious instruction, though presented here in a generalized way. The most notable section of ethical-religious instruction is 12:3-17, framing the matter in terms of believers’ “struggle against sin”, using the verb a)ntagwni/zomai (“struggle against”).

Such struggle, which, as most believers can attest, is often difficult (and even painful), is compared by the author to the forceful kind of chastising discipline that a parent must, at times, employ when raising a child. The noun typically translated as “discipline” is paidei/a, from the verb paideu/w, which basically means “raise a child [pai=$]”, but often refers specifically to the instruction and training that a parent gives to a child. Drawing upon this idiomatic language, the author has introduced the traditional motif of God’s people as His children.

In the prior notes dealing with this theme—viz., believers as the sons (or children) of God—we have explored the Scriptural background of the motif, along with important examples in the Pauline letters, and elsewhere in the New Testament. The most recent note covered the sonship-theme as it was introduced earlier in Hebrews (2:10ff). In that passage, the emphasis was primarily Christological, while here, in 12:5ff, the focus is ethical-religious. However, the Christological aspect is still present, as vv. 1-3 make clear; the exhortation for believers is based upon the example we have in Jesus Christ, who himself suffered in the flesh just as we do, enduring both temptation (toward sin) and persecution by hostile forces.

The sonship-theme is reintroduced in verse 5, in the context of the “struggle against sin” being understood in terms of the discipline a child receives from his/her parents. The author presents this by way of a quotation from Scripture, introduced as follows:

“Indeed, have you forgotten about the calling alongside [para/klhsi$] which speaks through to you…?”

The noun para/klhsi$ comes from the verb parakale/w (“call alongside”); a person calls one alongside (or is called alongside), usually for the purpose of offering help of some kind. This help or assistance can take the form of emotional-spiritual comfort or exhortation, as is the case here. The verb diale/gomai means “gather through”, usually in the specific sense of “say/speak through”, according to a regular meaning of the verb le/gw. The preposition dia/ (“through”), in this context, can imply a conversation or discussion that is thorough, going ‘back and forth’. Certainly, this aspect of instruction and training (discipline) is very much in view here.

The Scriptural citation in vv. 5b-6 comes from Proverbs 3:11-12. In that passage, the Wisdom instruction is framed as teaching given by a father to his son (Prov 3:1ff). This is a common feature of ancient Wisdom literature; however, in vv. 11-12, the pattern is applied to the traditional religious theme of God (YHWH) as Father, and His people (esp. the righteous) as his children (or “sons”), cf. above. The human father continues to address his son, but emphasizes that it is also YHWH who acts to bring training (and discipline) to the child. By quoting these verses, the author of Hebrews takes on the role of the speaker/protagonist of Proverbs 3:

“My son, do not have little regard (for) [i.e. do not disregard] (the) child-rearing [paidei/a] of (the) Lord, and do not loosen out [i.e. become lax/weak] under His admonishing; for the (one) whom (the) Lord loves, He trains as a child [paideu/ei], and He flogs every son whom He receives alongside.”

The training/rearing of a child may include corporal discipline (here ‘flogging’, vb mastigo/w), which, though increasingly less common (or accepted) in modern times (especially in Western countries), was very much part of the ancient Near Eastern cultural milieu. Yet it is this more ‘painful’ aspect of discipline that the author wishes to emphasize here—indeed, it is central to his exhortation. The struggle against sin may be painful, but God allows His faithful ones (i.e., believers) to experience the impulse (and temptation) toward sin, along with opposition coming from the sinful world, as part of His parental discipline. It is part of being raised as a son/child of God, and every believer must accept the struggle as part of his/her identity as God’s child. This is the point made in vv. 7-8, urging believers to endure (lit. “remain under”, vb u(pome/nw) the discipline given to us by God.

If one remains faithful, even in the midst of our struggle against sin, then the discipline will produce its natural and proper result. We will come to be raised and trained as true children of God, reflecting His very nature and character. This is how the author concludes this part of his exhortation, in vv. 9-11. By willingly submitting to the child-rearing discipline of “the Father of spirits”, we shall live (v. 9)—that is, shall obtain eternal life. Another result is that we will come to share in the holiness of God (v. 10). Finally, this training will also bring forth the “fruit of righteousness” (v. 11), terminology which brings to mind Paul’s famous discussion of the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:16-24 (vv. 22-23).