Discipline

It is for chastening that ye endure; God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father chasteneth not? (Hebrews 12:7).

Discipline; chastisement: we do not like the sound of these words. They may bring back unpleasant memories from childhood. Even the Bible makes it clear that no one really enjoys discipline when it happens (cf. Hebrews 12:11). How many times have we schemed in life in attempts to avoid discipline and/or chastisement? And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we understand the need for and value of discipline.

The word translated as chastening (or, in other versions, discipline) is the Greek paideia, which can refer to the whole training and education of children, and for adults, that which leads to correcting errors, limiting the exercise of passions, and actual chastisement for bad behavior. In 2 Timothy 3:15, Paul describes Scripture as providing “instruction” (paideia) in righteousness; in Ephesians 6:4, he encourages parents to raise their children in the “nurture” (or “discipline”; paideia) and admonition of the Lord.

We do well to keep the breadth of meaning of paideia in mind when we consider discipline, since it is very easy for us to focus on the negative. “Discipline” or “chastisement” tends to be associated only with some kind of penalty or punishment for misbehavior; that automatic association is unfortunate and a distortion. Just providing (or suffering) a penalty or punishment is not discipline: punitive acts alone do not change or alter behaviors. Instead, the aim of any kind of discipline ought to be corrective; any punishment or penalty should be designed with correction of improper behavior in mind.

We normally associate discipline and chastisement, as seen above, with raising children. This remains a most critical aspect to discipline, for children will grow up and have to learn about the boundaries of proper behavior somehow or another. The only question involves the quality of that instruction and from whom it is received: will instruction and discipline be based in the message of the Lord Jesus or not? Will the child ever learn truly proper behavior, or will they just learn to go along with the boundaries society or the law imposes upon them? How much will they be taught by their parents, and how many lessons will they have to learn through their own mistakes?

It is easy to imagine discipline only in terms of growing up from childhood into adulthood, but discipline does not end because we have left home and are now “grown up.” We must maintain discipline within our own lives, whether through learned behavior or by external restraints. We have to live within our means; we have to conduct ourselves within the boundary of certain standards. We will be punished in various ways by not abiding within these boundaries.

If we believe in God, trust in Him, and seek to do His will, we will receive discipline and chastisement from His hand (Hebrews 12:3-11). Such a view seems sharp and harsh; too many already have a view of God as an authoritarian disciplinarian, and passages like this do not seem to help that perspective. People want to envision that God provides all the good things in their lives, but then will blame God for abandoning them when bad things happen. But let us hear out what the Hebrew author is telling us.

The Hebrew author makes it clear that the problem is with our views and expectations, not God Himself. After all, we have all seen overly permissive parents and the royal terrors and spoiled brats coming out of that relationship. Most of us can look back in our own lives and understand the value and benefit received from proper discipline and chastisement that we received from a figure of some authority. We all need to learn boundaries and understand that there are negative consequences for transgressing boundaries; there is not one of us who can live among other people and not learn this lesson. And since, as human beings, we are all fairly hard-headed, we must pay a penalty or suffer a consequence if we will ever really learn to respect certain boundaries. We did not like discipline at the time: we did not enjoy punishments, we did not enjoy homework, we did not enjoy having to put in a lot of work in order to gain some reward or benefit, but through it all we were supposed to learn to respect boundaries, that we are not entitled to receive anything without working for it, that in order to accomplish anything of value we must devote our time and energy to them, and so on and so forth.

This is exactly what the Hebrew author is saying about discipline (Hebrews 12:3-11); he shows how the example of earthly fathers and the discipline they impose upon their children is a (albeit imperfect) type of the reality of our relationship with God. Just because we have reached the age of 18 (or 28, 38, 58, 78…) does not mean that we no longer need discipline; if anything, as we reach mature adulthood, the necessity of discipline is more evident. God provides discipline and chastisement to His children precisely because He loves them and wants them to live well! Without that discipline, God would be a permissive parent– in the words of the Hebrew author, if God did not discipline us, He would be treating us like illegitimate children! If we are illegitimate, we have no share in Him! How tragic that would be!

As in childhood, so in life: we have lessons to learn in every situation. There are wholesome lessons to be learned through hard effort and success; there are wholesome lessons to be learned when things go wrong and/or when we suffer. Sometimes we might experience pain, misery, suffering, or other such difficulties so that we might learn to stay within the proper boundaries of God’s will and to develop peace and righteousness. It is rarely enough to just intellectually grasp such things; we need to experience them if we will learn from them.

Therefore, in times of difficulty, let us not assume that God has abandoned us. We might be experiencing a moment of chastisement. Even if it is not some kind of punishment or penalty for our excess or transgression, we can still learn discipline through the experience, having our faith refined and developing the characteristics of self-control, peace, patience, and faithfulness, which seem to only develop through suffering. Even if it is unpleasant, let us be willing to endure discipline; without it, we cannot be children of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Living Letters

Are we beginning again to commend ourselves? Or need we, as do some, epistles of commendation to you or from you? Ye are our epistle, written in our hearts, known and read of all men; being made manifest that ye are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in tables that are hearts of flesh (2 Corinthians 3:1-3).

Somehow, things had gotten worse in Corinth.

A cursory reading of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians exposes enough problems: flagrant sexual immorality in their midst, Christians taking other Christians to court, abuse of spiritual gifts, denial of the resurrection of the dead. Nevertheless, the Corinthian Christians still had some respect for Paul and gave him some credence.

Yet by the time of the writing of Paul’s second letter, Paul’s credibility is at stake. We get the impression from comments throughout the letter, but especially in chapters 10 through 12, that certain ones have come to Corinth from among the Jews, perceived to be some type of “super-apostles,” who are undermining the Corinthian Christians’ view of Paul. They challenge his credentials, his manner of speaking, his authority, and thus his message. The Corinthian Christians have clearly been influenced by these people. They begin questioning whether Paul really is who he says he is. They would like to see some sort of commendation for Paul to vouch for his standing.

Paul is thus in quite the predicament. How should he go about justifying who he is and the work he does when the Corinthians should already know better?

Ultimately, Paul decides to highlight the work that has been done among the Corinthians themselves as a demonstration of his commendation (2 Corinthians 3:1-3). What need does Paul have for a letter written by ink on papyrus, one that theoretically could be forged or compromised in some other way? He has a far greater letter of commendation: the Corinthian Christians themselves.

While the Corinthian correspondence highlights the flaws of the Corinthians, it is still good to bear in mind just how far those Corinthians have come. The congregation seems to be made up mostly of Gentiles, people from the Greek world who lived in a city famous for its immorality. Yes, some of them still struggled with the rampant sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 6:12-20); some struggled with balancing the understanding that an idol is nothing with the weaker consciences of other Christians (1 Corinthians 8:1-13); others had difficulties with the doctrine of resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-58). But the amazing thing is that they had been delivered from all such immorality and more through Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 6:11), having turned from dead idols to serve the living God. If you could get Gentiles in Corinth to seek to try to change their ways and to follow God, you could probably get Gentiles anywhere to try to do so!

And so Paul does have reason to feel that the Corinthians themselves represent a letter of commendation. They are a letter of Christ, not of Paul, as he strenuously emphasizes; Paul is the servant, the minister, whose sufficiency is only from God (2 Corinthians 3:4-6). The Corinthians testify to the power of Christ to transform people, even if there are many kinks that still need working out. This letter is not written on papyrus with ink, nor, for that matter, by chisel on stone, but instead by the Spirit of the living God on hearts of flesh (2 Corinthians 3:2-3). Paul and his associates carry this “letter” in their hearts, using their example in their exhortations to others, so that all may know and understand how powerfully God has worked among the Corinthians. With such a testimony and such a “letter,” what good would papyrus and ink, or stone and chisel, really be?

Yes, Paul writes as he does to persuade the Corinthians, and it has strong potential to persuade, since it speaks highly of them, and if nothing else, people always like being spoken of in such glowing terms. Yes, there is also probably a tinge of irony here, since Paul (or Paul’s amanuensis) is writing these words with ink on papyrus. But the point remains powerful: the greatest testimony to the Lord cannot be written down on paper with ink or on tablets with a chisel. The greatest letters of Christ are living letters.

It is the same way today. It is right and appropriate to appreciate Scripture and to use Scripture as the means of coming to a better understanding of who God is and what God would have us to do (2 Timothy 3:16-17). There is great power in the message of God (Hebrews 4:12). Nevertheless, the message loses its force quickly when its contents do not lead to transformation of the mind, heart, and deeds of the believer. One can know the Scriptures intimately, but if one is not actively seeking to conform to the image of Christ, all that knowledge goes for nothing (Matthew 7:21-23, Romans 8:29, James 1:22-25).

There is unparalleled power in the message brought to life; this is why the revelation of the new covenant is centered in the embodiment of the divine in Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:1, 14, 18, Colossians 2:9, Hebrews 1:3). The New Testament Scriptures seek to communicate in words who Jesus was, what Jesus taught, what Jesus did, the message of Jesus as it was communicated by His disciples, and the practical ways in which that message is to be lived and communicated. The message always points to its Source– God in Christ– and exhorts everyone to entrust themselves to that Source (Romans 1:16-17). The message lays forth all the equipment the believer will need in order to entrust himself to Christ and to follow after Him (2 Timothy 3:16-17). But that is not enough. The believer must then seek to put it to practice, to become that living letter of Christ of which Paul speaks.

A lot of people know that there are many good teachings in the Bible. Most people do not have a high tolerance for people who push the message of the Bible without living that message. Yet it is amazing to see how people respond when they see the message not just preached by a believer, but also lived by him or her (Matthew 5:13-16, Romans 10:14-17). There is no greater commendation of God’s message in the Gospel than to see it being lived by believers submitting themselves in all things to God’s will. It is not enough, therefore, to just tell people about Jesus; we must also show Jesus to people. It is not enough to just point to the letter and the ink; we must embody the message that has been recorded for us by letter and ink.

One of the saddest objections to the Bible is when people believe it to be irrelevant to modern life because of its antiquity. The Bible might be 2,000+ years old, but the message of God is supposed to be always alive through the believer who seeks to embody that message in his or her life. It may be that the last letter of an Apostle was written over 1,900 years ago; yet there should be living letters of Christ circulating around the world today, still proclaiming God’s redemptive work in word and deed, in the form of believers seeking to obey the Christ. Let us be those living letters to a sinful world and commend the faith in our words and deeds!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Good Soil

“…and others fell upon the good ground, and yielded fruit, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty…and he that was sown upon the good ground, this is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; who verily beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty” (Matthew 13:8, 23).

Finally, after speaking about the unbelievers, those who were not firmly grounded, and those who allow the cares of the world to choke out the faith, Jesus comes to the good soil in the Parable of the Sower.

Soil is good by virtue of the climactic conditions in which it exists along with the nutrients present within it. So it is with people and the message of the Gospel– the good soil are those people who have good and honest hearts, who hear the Word, understand it, believe it, and consequently bear fruit with patience (Matthew 13:23, Mark 4:20, Luke 8:15). All of these conditions must exist for the soil to be good.

The condition of the heart is critical. As we saw with the “road soil,” an unreceptive heart will not accept the message of the Gospel. A person must have a good and honest heart for the Gospel to do them any good. They must be willing to question themselves and the way they have conducted themselves. They must be willing to accept that they were wrong and acted wrongly and must change. They must be willing to accept truth as truth and to not justify error or rationalize their improper conduct in any way. In short, they must be willing to humble themselves so as to learn from Christ (Matthew 20:25-28).

The Gospel is preached, and those who are of the “good soil” hear it, understand it, and believe it (cf. Romans 10:9-17). Yet such was also the case for the “rocky soil” and the “thorny soil.” But the “good soil” has greater depth than the “rocky soil” and lacks the weeds of the “thorny soil.” Because conditions are more optimal, the seed bears fruit in the “good soil.” So it is that believers are to be known by their fruit– by how their faith operates in their lives (cf. James 2:14-20, 1 John 3:16-18). Most everyone wants to be the “good soil,” just like everyone is a good person, a good driver, and feels pretty well. Yet, as we have seen, this is not the case with everyone or even of most. Most will prove to be the road soil, the rocky soil, or the thorny soil. “Good soil” is not something we declare ourselves to be by our words; instead, we are manifest as good soil (or, for that matter, less than ideal soil) by how what we profess changes our lives, our attitudes, our thoughts, and our deeds (Matthew 5:13-16, Romans 6:1-11, 8:29, Galatians 5:17-24). And, as Luke adds, this requires patience (cf. Luke 8:15). As fruit and grain take time to grow and ripen, spiritual transformation demands time and effort (cf. Romans 12:2); patience with others is also manifest as fruit of spiritual maturity (Galatians 5:22-24). Growth may take time, but it must be something for which we consistently seek and toward which we endeavor.

Jesus ends His discussion of the “good soil” with what may seem to be a puzzling addendum– the harvest is not necessarily the same with every patch of the good soil. Some bear thirtyfold, others sixtyfold, and some even a hundredfold (Matthew 13:8, Mark 14:8)! Was not “good” soil really “good” soil?

We go back to the source of Jesus’ story: farming. Farmers know that one can grow the same crop in different soils and get different yields based upon the soil quality and conditions. “Good soil” in one place may yield, say, 200 bushels an acre, while “good soil” somewhere else might yield 300 bushels an acre. They are both good, but based upon conditions, one may get more from some than others.

So it is spiritually. The “good soil” is that which is open and receptive to the Gospel, working to bear fruit for God. Yet God has not made us all the same. We are different, and different people not only have different abilities but also different levels of ability. In our egalitarian society it might not be politically correct to say as much, yet it is affirmed by the Gospel (Romans 12:3-8). Consider the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30: three people are entrusted with different amounts of money. The five talent man who made five more talents is rewarded equally as the two talent man who made two more talents. It is not important for us to try to compete with one another and try to boast about how many gifts or talents we may have; instead, we must ascertain what God has given us so that we can serve Him and one another in accordance and in proportion to what we have received (1 Peter 4:10-11, etc.). One bearing a hundredfold and one bearing thirtyfold are both “good soil,” and one is not inherently better than the other. “Good soil” that could bear a hundredfold but gets a big head or does not work up to his potential is worse off than “good soil” actually bearing thirtyfold. Likewise, “good soil” that bears sixtyfold does better than “good soil” that could bear thirtyfold but does nothing because they are not equipped to bear a hundredfold. The emphasis is on the fruit borne, not a spirit of competition.

Few people who understand the Parable of the Sower would define themselves as road soil, rocky soil, or thorny soil. We all aspire to be the “good soil.” That is a good and noble aspiration, but it is meaningless if we do not prove to be the “good soil” by our works. Let us strive, then, to have that open and honest heart, seeking after and trusting in God our Creator and Savior, and devoting our lives to bearing fruit for His cause, be it thirtyfold, sixtyfold, or a hundredfold. Does the Lord know that we are His by our works? Let us serve Him and prove to be good soil!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Adoption

For ye received not the spirit of bondage again unto fear; but ye received the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15).

Having foreordained us unto adoption as sons through Jesus Christ unto himself, according to the good pleasure of his will (Ephesians 1:5).

There is a saying that goes, “you can pick your spouse, you can pick your friends, you can pick your nose, but you cannot pick your relatives.” This statement is designed to be humorous and to reflect a reality that exists for most people in regards to their blood relatives: there was no choice in the matter. Parents cannot choose their biological children; children cannot choose their biological parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other relatives. Most of the time, there is a sense of “blood obligation” that exists among family members. Most cultures have respected this sense of obligation– when family needs assistance, you provide that assistance.

There are many in the world, however, who do not have the luxury of family. Perhaps their relatives have died or become incapacitated because of some tragedy. Other times the parent or parents do not feel able to provide for the child. Some, tragically, do not care for their children at all.

And yet, for such children, there is hope in adoption– a family that, despite the fact that there is no blood connection, chooses to bring the child into their family and to consider him or her as one of their own. It is a very special relationship– parents by choice, not by any feeling of compulsion or obligation. A child who did not know love can now experience love.

In spiritual terms, the image of believers as “biological” children of God is present in passages like the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. We also find, however, the image of believers as adopted children of God in Romans 8:15 and Ephesians 1:5. We should not believe that these images are opposed to one another; each image, in fact, highlights a different aspect of our relationship with God.

There is great power in the image of believers as adopted children of God. Adoption is always a choice on the part of the parent, and it is a choice entirely motivated by love. Likewise, God chose to provide the means by which we could be adopted as sons and daughters– He was not forced or compelled to do so– and His motivations were entirely based in love (1 John 4:7-11). It cannot be said that an adopted child “deserved” to be adopted or any such thing; furthermore, we certainly did not “deserve” to be adopted as the children of God (cf. Romans 5:5-11). Likewise, just as adoption can take place across racial, ethnic, linguistic, and any other boundary, so God has adopted into His family people of every race, ethnicity, language, etc. (Galatians 3:28). Finally, just as the adopted child is considered as legitimate as a biological child, so we also stand able to receive the inheritance of sons and daughters on account of our adoption (cf. Romans 8:15-18).

As believers who have been adopted spiritually as sons and daughters of God, we do well, if we have opportunity, to adopt children in their distress (cf. James 1:27), reflecting in our own families what God has done for us. We should not consider adoption to be something strange or something to malign, some type of a “consolation prize” for those who cannot have biological children, or believe that adopted children are any less legitimate than biological children. Instead, we should all be thankful that God has decided to adopt us as His children, despite our various differences and past sinfulness!

Ethan R. Longhenry
written on the occasion of the adoption of his daughter Ella