Punishment or Chastening?
The perfecting of a saint takes a lifetime. When the individual has matured--and the word perfection in the Greek seems to have this connotation--that individual may be said to have apprehended that for which he is apprehended in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:12). Or to put this in more colloquial terms, when the individual has realized the level of development in Christ which the Father has seen as the maximum potential in keeping with opportunity, endowment, and experience, then that individual is mature. And I suspect that that individual is also ready to go home to heaven.
When the Lord Jesus Christ was mature in this sense (Heb. 5:8, 9) He was ready to go home to glory, and if He had chosen He need never have come down again from the Mount of Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36). Hebrews 12:2 tells us, however, that "instead of" (so the Greek) * entering into this joy that was at that moment open to Him, He turned back, came down from the Mount and set his face like a flint to go to Jerusalem, there to despise the shame and endure crucifixion. He made that choice because it was a choice that He was free to make. He was not made as we are made but with the potential for endless life (Heb. 7:16); like Adam before he sinned, He was not subject to death and need never have died. He had been made perfect (i.e., mature) by the things which He had experienced and was ready to enter into heaven by transformation without tasting death at all. That this is possible even for mortal man is clear from 1 Corinthians 15:51. For Paul is saying in this passage that when the Lord returns there will be a number of his children who will pass into glory without the experience of dying. As he wrote: "Behold, I show you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed" (1 Cor. 15:51, 52). In that tremendous moment, the dead in Christ will be raised, and the living will be transformed.
* The use of anti followed by the genitive clearly indicates this meaning.It may be that Enoch was transformed and taken home without experiencing death (Heb. 11:5) because in some extraordinary way he had, in a manner of speaking, prematurely matured so that his time of "graduation" came unexpectedly. For he had this testimony, that he pleased God. It is difficult to know whether anyone else ever has really achieved such complete maturity, except the Lord Jesus Himself (John 8:29); and if not, how to reconcile this failure with the sovereignty of God's grace. It seems very doubtful if the majority of us who are the Lord's children do ever achieve our maximum potential as God sees it for each of us individually in Christ. Perhaps such maturing is part of God's desiring rather than part of his willing? I suppose this means that in some way we are all taken home when we have reached our potential and when allowing us to remain would not serve to mature us any further. For the great majority of us, it must be that we fall short of what God would like, but that cannot come as any surprise to Him. God's sovereignty is matched by his omniscience, and all his plans must be based upon his sure foreknowledge of what will be.
We are in a quandary here for if the child of God is taken home only when God sees the maturing process has gone as far as it can, are we to assume that there is a built-in potential that is probably almost never realized? Is this then a thwarting of the will of God?
Perhaps the problem is with the word mature. Could it be that maturity is not perfection in the sense of having achieved maximum potential for good but in the sense of having achieved perfect hatred of sin? Many older Christians experience a growing despair at the apparent lack of progress towards purity of heart that they once dreamed of in their earlier walk with the Lord. But it is possible that such despair may itself be a matter for rejoicing, because it could signify not so much a greater measure of failure to achieve holiness of life in the commonly accepted sense, but a greater measure of awareness of un-holiness. The truth is that the closer we are to the Lord the more clearly we begin to see ourselves for what we really are. The brighter the light, the deeper the shadows and the more likely are we to see the dirt. In our house, when the sun shines right down the hall in the evening, we suddenly become aware of the cobwebs festooning the ceiling--one of the penalties of living in the country, where spiders abound! Throughout the day these cobwebs don't show and we are apt to be quite happy with the general state of our housekeeping. This is a parable from life and is reflected in John 3:19: "Men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil."
Progress towards maturity is not to be measured by victory over the sins we are aware of, but by hatred of the sins which we had overlooked and which we now see all too clearly. The nearer we come to the Lord, the more sinful we shall undoubtedly feel ourselves to be. When we hate sin with a perfect hatred, then it may be we are ready to be taken into the presence of the King, for to hate sin perfectly is to have our love made perfect also (1 John 4:17). In a sense this would suggest that the darkest period of our lives may well be just before the dawn: "He turneth the shadow of death into the morning" (Amos 5:8).
Now if the Lord chastens his loved ones in order to complete this perfecting process, how does He carry out this chastening? He uses the world. In Psalm 23:4 David wrote: "Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me." We read the words rod and staff as though the rod were a magic wand to smooth out our path when we run into roadblocks, and the staff a kind of shepherd's crook to haul us out of pits we fall into when we have wandered out of the way. But how does the rest of Scripture view these "comforting" rods and staffs?
Well, consider Isaiah 10:5 as a case in point. Isaiah is here warning Israel of the fate that awaits them at the hands of the Assyrians, who are about to descend on their land to lay it waste and carry them into captivity. Here are the Lord's words written by Isaiah under inspiration: "O Assyrian, the rod of mine anger, and the staff in their hand is mine indignation." Here, then, are God's rod and staff in one aspect. Israel was both to be punished in anger and chastened in concern. The many in the nation who had no true "membership" in God's commonwealth would perish in the massacres which were to accompany the country's devastation at the hands of the Assyrians or would die languishing in Assyria as captives. The remnant of the Lord's people still faithful but caught up in the fate of the nation as a whole would in many cases no doubt also die in Assyria and Babylonia like their countrymen, but not in despair. What was to be punishment for the many would be chastening for the few. The rod and staff were to perform both offices. Above all, Israel would be permanently purged of any temptation towards the kind of idolatry to which their forefathers had constantly fallen prey while they were in the Promised Land. Seventy years later their children would return to Palestine and never again revert to the worship of idols, even after their worship of the Lord God of their fathers had decayed to a mere formality.
When the Lord promised to David a son who would establish his kingdom gloriously and finally build the Temple which David had dreamed of building, the Lord said to David (2 Sam. 7:14, 15): "I will be his father and he shall be my son. If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men and with the stripes of the children of men, but my mercy shall not depart away from him..." Men are the Lord's rod.
As the day of Israel's captivity drew near, the part that the worldly nations around them were to play in their chastening became more and more explicit. Thus in Isaiah 7:20 the prophet warned Israel: "In the same day shall the Lord shave with a razor that is hired, namely, by them beyond the river, by the king of Assyria, the head and hair of the feet and it shall consume the beard." Note that the Lord was to do this shaving and it was to be total, and furthermore that He would hire a razor (the Assyrians and the Babylonians) as his barber. Then again in Jeremiah 47:6, 7: "O thou sword of the Lord, how long will it be ere thou be quiet? Put up thyself into thy scabbard, rest, and be still. How can it be quiet, seeing the Lord hath given it a charge against Ashkelon, and against the sea shore!" Here, then, the razor has become a sword. One always thinks of the "sword of the Lord" as being a pure Excalibur in the hand of God, perhaps even the Word of God itself. But here we find it to be nothing else than a line of oriental monarchs who were about as ruthless as the world had ever seen up to that time. History tells us that these Babylonian and Assyrian Emperors sometimes beheaded virtually every conquered male who could possibly bear arms, and piled up the heads in huge pyramids outside the devastated cities as a warning to any inhabitants who might have escaped their wrath. Were these men really the "sword of the Lord"? Apparently they were--"appointed of God."
But what was to be punishment for the many was still only to be correction for those who remained faithful in Israel. And Habakkuk 1:12 seems to have been penned by and for this remnant: "Art Thou not from everlasting, O Lord my God, mine Holy One? We shall not die. O Lord, Thou hast ordained them for judgment; and, O mighty God, Thou hast ordained them for correction." So here we have a single agency in the hands of God used to punish the faithless in Israel but to correct the faithful. Superficially it must have seemed at the time that all were being treated alike. But it was not really so, and we have to assume that the saints were actually experiencing as chastening what the wicked were at the same time experiencing as punishment. Such a conviction would surely be a tremendous comfort to those who found themselves sharing the national calamity. To the many it was an evil; to the few it was a good.
When calamity overtakes a community there must surely be always this fundamental difference in response to the circumstances; for to the one, catastrophe is either meaningless or is seen as a punishment, whereas by the other it may be seen for what it is--chastening. Our response to these two alternative interpretations of events is bound to be different. If we see catastrophe as punishment, we are made bitter or craven; if we see it as chastening, we may look heavenward and be comforted. To ensure the latter, two things must be believed: first, God knows what He is about and is sovereign, and the men of the world who are the source of our grief are his servants; and secondly, God is our Father, and acts towards us only in loving concern and for our good. What destroys the faith of the many may confirm the faith of the few. One has to use the word may in these propositions because we are so slow to believe and trust, and we understand so little of the Lord's ways with us.
Yet no chastening seems pleasant at the time (Heb. 12:11); if it did, it could not be serving its intended purpose! So we naturally cry out against it. Although David must certainly have known that the chastening of the Lord was for his own good and absolutely necessary, yet in Psalm 17:13, 14 he prayed: "Arise O Lord...deliver my soul from the wicked, which is thy sword: from men which art thy hand, O Lord, from men of the world, who have their portion in this life." And it appears that one day the tables will perhaps be turned and Israel will become the rod in God's hand to punish the nations who are the rod in God's hand today chastening Israel's children. As Jeremiah 51:20 put it: "Thou [Israel] art my battle-ax and weapons of war: for with thee will I break in pieces the nations, and with thee will I destroy kingdoms."
Meanwhile, the saints are chastened and the rest are punished; and in both cases God in his sovereignty uses men as his weapons, as his sword, his razor, his battle-ax, his rod, and his staff. And sometimes He uses the saints to chasten one another.
When we are chastened by the world we are apt to see it as a form of persecution. In our conceit we may imagine that this persecution comes because the world finds our "righteousness" offensive. But in point of fact it may be because it is the Lord who is displeased with us, with our unrighteousness, and determines that it must be corrected. When our friends, our brothers and sisters in the Lord, are chastened we may very well be tempted to mistake it for punishment. We are terribly confused in our thinking about these things. But what a tremendously comforting thing it is to remind ourselves when "the boss" comes down hard on us (even if we deserve it) that this same boss is the Lord's rod or staff which is really intended to comfort us, to chasten us, not for our hurt but for our good. Rightly understood, such persecution ought to be a source of thankfulness, not complaint. A life lived in such a spirit would make it somewhat easier for us to fulfill Paul's injunction: "In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you" (1 Thess. 5:18).
Yet how difficult it is to be thankful when we are troubled in this way. And the difficulty almost always stems from our inability to grasp the fact once for all that "there is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:1). Penalty has become merely consequence, and even this consequence may not ensue unless the Lord sees that it will serve a purpose for good. The consequence which follows upon our failures does not have the nature of penalty but rather of occasion for concerned action on God's part. The consequence is not penalty but loving kindness. The element of condemnation is missing entirely, not because a sinful action is no longer sinful, but because the aspect of sinfulness has been removed by being laid upon the Lord Jesus Christ on Calvary. The penal aspect has been dealt with once for all, and what remains is an occasion which God may or may not decide to make use of for our good.
How wonderful it is that in John 15:15 the Lord says: "Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father, I have made known unto you!" What does this mean? Well, first of all, it means that the Lord's children have had their status changed from that of servant to friend. All men are servants of God by reason of their being his creatures (Ps. 119:91). They are like hired men, and have their allotment of life as the hired man has his term of employment. Job 14:6 acknowledges this fact thus: "Turn from him [from man] that he may rest, till he shall accomplish as a hireling his day." Men fulfill God's will by his overruling of the circumstances of their lives. They are not as a rule aware of this unless it is specifically revealed to them. Under normal circumstances they do not do his will consciously, knowing what it is. There is no deliberate desire to please the Lord. On the other hand, it is the prerogative of friends to act knowingly, and only actions knowingly performed are meritorious, for it is the motivation that is rewarded. The servants who merely did what they were commanded to do were in this sense "unprofitable" (Luke 17:10).
Paul spoke of having a commission to preach and he said: "Yea, woe is me if I don't preach the Gospel" (1 Cor. 9:16). But then he added, "If I do this thing willingly. I have a reward" (v. 17). He says that necessity was laid upon him; and yet he could rise above the fact of necessity and choose to do what was laid upon him by compulsion, thus converting it from a compelled to a voluntary act, and receive accordingly the reward of consciously pleasing his Lord. The secret of his statement is in the words, "If I do this thing willingly, I have a reward." And he could do it willingly only if he could do it knowingly; and he could do it knowingly only if his relationship to the Lord was not merely that of a servant but of a friend, for the servant doesn't know what his lord is up to.
There is a beautiful illustration of this principle in the case of Abraham. In Genesis 18:17 the Lord said: "Shall I hide from Abraham the thing that I do?" And the answer, in effect, was, "No, I will make it known to him." And why to Abraham? Because according to 2 Chronicles 20:7 and James 2:23, Abraham was in a special sense a "friend of God." Now the mind of God is revealed in what He does, whereas the heart of God is revealed in the way He does it. The distinction between ways and works is an important one. Psalm 103:7 tells us that "the Lord made known his ways unto Moses, his acts unto the children of Israel." This is not merely a poetic play upon words. The difference is reaffirmed in Hebrews 3:9, 10:
"Your fathers tempted Me, proved Me, and saw my works forty years. Wherefore I was grieved with that generation and said, They do always err in their hearts; and they have not known my ways." Putting these two passages together we can see that while the children of Israel observed the Lord's doings for forty years, they entirely misunderstood the reasons why the Lord did them; his motivations were hidden from them. It was otherwise with Moses. Moses saw not only his work but his way. Indeed, Moses had prayed that this might be so (Exod. 33:13) when he said to the Lord; "Now therefore, I pray Thee, if I have found grace in thy sight, show me now thy way, that I may know Thee, that I may find grace in thy sight."
When in Isaiah 55:8 the Lord says, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," He is not talking about his works, but about the why and how of his doing them. It is not the prerogative of the servant to question his master about his reasons for doing the things that he does, but it is the privilege of a friend to have these reasons explained to him, unasked. In so far as we need to know God's reasons, they form an essential part of revelation, but they are not set forth in such a way that the casual reader can easily satisfy idle curiosity. Revealing his will to us as friends, He is able to communicate what He is about and thus to invite us to enter by choice and willingly into his plan and purpose. We are then in the position to undertake voluntarily what the Lord may nevertheless have predetermined we are to do willy-nilly. A predetermined act voluntarily undertaken becomes thereby a free act, and acts performed freely and willingly are the only acts worthy of reward. The man who does an evil act willingly is also worthy of reward, namely, to be punished. In neither case is it the deed itself that counts in the moral balance of things, but the motive which prompted the doing of it. It is not the works themselves but the ways in which they are done that matter in the judgment. Many acts of kindness that we perform are marred by the way in which we perform them, and we recognize even an outwardly kind act as morally unworthy if the motive is self-serving. Is God any less of a judge of our ways than we are of one another's? God works in the world that they do his will: He works in his children that they not only do but also will his will (Phil. 2:13). Thus, by being elevated to the position of friends, we are also in a position to know what the Lord is doing.
Now it is a great comfort for the child of God to be assured that the man of the world who opposes him in his business life, or rewards him with evil in his social life, or prevents his worship or disrupts his study or intrudes into his time of meditation in his spiritual life, is a servant of God--while he himself is a child of the King! Suppose in all our daily relations with men of the world we were to walk always in the light of this knowledge. What a difference it would make! To know that the grace of God is sovereign is not a cold, hard-nosed, and calculating view of theology. It is a reflection of the truth of the Word of God, an essential part of the total implication of the Gospel of salvation by faith without works of merit.
When we hope to find a parking place and somebody gets there first, when we rush to get in line for some bargains in the world's market place and they are all sold out just before our part of the queue reaches the counter, when the piece of cake on the plate we had our eye on as we moved along the line is taken by the diner just ahead of us, when we are by-passed for a position we felt so important to us and so right for us, when a house we longed to own is sold only a few days before we can meet the financial or other requirement, when a person we don't respect is credited by others for a work we did at some cost to ourselves, when.... We could go on indefinitely. Life seems so full of daily disappointments and little injustices. The epitaph of life for so many is summed up in the one word Almost.
For the Lord's child, the worker is more important than the work, the effect is more important than the event, the objective than the means, the motive than the deed. If only we could trust our sovereign Father and his grace, we would allow Him to mold our character without so much disappointment and rebellion on our part. And in the rat race of business life, what a marvelous thing to live daily secure in the knowledge that "promotion cometh neither from the east. nor the west, nor from the south. But God is the judge: He putteth down one, and setteth up another" (Ps. 75:6, 7). This fact gives force to 1 Peter 5:6, 7: "Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God that He may advance you [So the Greek] in due time: casting all your anxiety upon Him; for He is concerned about you."
The fundamental hindrance to this maturing process is the self which must have its way. This self has to be put to death. It is to be put to death by crucifixion. The crucifixion of our self in this pilgrimage is not without its parallels to the crucifixion of the Lord. The Lord invites us to take up our cross and follow Him (Mark 8:34), and He has repeated this invitation on several occasions in the Gospels. Glibly we decide to surrender ourselves to Him, expecting a joyously fulfilled experience to result, and anticipating all kinds of fruits in the commonly accepted meaning of this word. But what happens?
What happens is that, if we really mean business, the Lord takes us at our word and begins the ordeal of crucifixion, using the world as executioner! We are often surprisingly willing, in some particular area of our life, to "take up our cross" provided that we are permitted to conduct the execution ourselves and in our own way. But there is no way a man can crucify himself! There is on record a case of an individual who tried it. He managed to nail his feet and, extraordinary though it seems, he even succeeded in nailing one hand. But then he was in trouble, for there was no way that he could, now single-handed, nail the other hand! In the end, after some hours of agony he was released by friends and is believed to have survived.
Crucifixion has to be done by someone else. It is a terribly painful, prolonged, and shameful death. In the olden days it seems to have been a rule that once a man had taken up the crossbar, his fate was sealed. The prisoner was reprievable, I believe, until he performed this symbolic act and started on the journey to the place of execution. It is almost certain that the condemned man did not, and probably could not, carry the whole cross. The upright was normally left in place on some prominent knoll at a decent distance from the city, ready for its victim. The condemned man was required to carry only the cross bar (it was called patibulum in Latin), and when he arrived at the site his outstretched arms were fastened to it, and it was then hauled up and secured in place. His feet were tied or nailed and the body rested on a small peg or sedile between his legs to support some of his weight. Although initially this sedile must have afforded enormous relief, in the end it contributed to the prolonging of the agony by extending survival time significantly. Some men and women are known to have survived for days in this awful position, and one case of survival for nine days is on record.
According to Alfred Edersheim, it was customary once the man had picked up the crossbar for the crowd to heap upon the condemned prisoner every imaginable insult and abuse short of actual physical assault. It was, manifestly, a most awful form of slow death. It is said that men sometimes had their eyes plucked out by birds, being quite unable to defend themselves. Some had limbs torn off by wild beasts at night. In such a position the victim was utterly helpless and exposed, and during the hours of darkness would be entirely alone.
And this is what the Lord was inviting us to expose ourselves to when He said we too must take up the crossbar and walk towards the execution of self, if we would really come after Him. Crucifixion is something that is done to us; it is not something that we do to ourselves. We can only initiate it by picking up the crossbar, that is, by a completely honest determination, which is undoubtedly what the Lord meant when He said, "Take up your cross." The rest is done to us by the world-and even by our friends.
This crucifixion is a daily process (Luke 9:23). It is a slow process, something that takes years. It is a passive process that we are called upon to endure, not a process that we are called upon to engineer. Paul said, "I am crucified with Christ," not, "I crucify myself" (Gal. 2:20). It is a reciprocal process whereby, as Paul put it in Galatians 6:14, "the world is crucified unto me and I unto the world," for the separation tends to be increasingly mutual.
But perhaps the most painful part of all is that those nearest and dearest to us are often called upon to play a role in the process. The wounds that the Lord felt most keenly were inflicted by his friends (Zech. 13:6), and He warned his disciples that they too would experience the same kind of injury.
But whatever the circumstances, it is comforting
to know that we are always in his care and that He is always in charge.
"And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude...saying: Alleluia:
for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth!" (Rev. 19:6). It was martyrs who