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)
So how does scourging fit into all we said about God responding to our shortcomings and sins? Does God scourge His kids or doesn’t He?
What is scourging?
Those who lived in the first century were familiar with at least two types of scourging:
First, there was the Jewish form of scourging which involved the application of a leather whip to your shoulders and chest. This form of scourging was limited by Jewish law to 40 stripes. This is why the Jews called it the “forty lashes minus one” – they didn’t want to risk breaking the law by miscounting so they deliberately reduced the maximum number of lashes to 39! The law also said the actual number of lashes was supposed to be commensurate with the crime. However, Paul got the “forty minus one” five times for breaking no law (2 Cor 11:24).
Then, there was Roman scourging which was worse. It was typically applied to criminals before execution and there was no law limiting the number of strokes applied. In fact, if you wanted to kill a man at the whipping post, you could do it with a vicious tool called the flagellum. A scourge is a multi-thong weapon with metal that was used to beat people to near death by digging deeply into the flesh and ripping it off of the body.
Regardless of whether you got the Jewish version or the Roman version, scourging was torture. Today it’s not the sort of thing civilized societies would inflict even on the worst criminals. Yet apparently God does it to His kids.
Is this good news?
Does God really scourge us?
The translation of Hebrews 12:6 is one that really freaks Christian out.
- Hebrews 12:6 NLV The Lord punishes everyone He loves. He whips every son He receives.”
- Hebrews 12:6 KJV For whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth.
- Hebrews 12:6 GNT Because the Lord corrects everyone He loves, and punishes everyone He accepts as a child.”
- Hebrews 12:6 NIV because the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and He chastens everyone He accepts as His son.”
So we see all kinds of translations here. We see “discipline” and “corrects,” which we talked about it and are not scary if we understand it correctly, but then we see whip, punish, and scourge which are pretty harsh.
We saw what it means to be whipped or scourged… This is not gentle, yet many Christians don’t question this translation and simply accept the idea that God beats us with metal whips us if we struggle with sin. But if we look at the Bible as a whole we have to ask, Does this translation conflict with God “remembers our sins no more” (Heb 10:17), “he who believes is not judged” (John 3:18), and “perfect love casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18)?
The original Greek word for scourges is mastigoō. It’s a verb that means “to scourge.” It is the same word that describes what Pilate had done to Jesus (John 19:1).
I’m here to tell you that God never, ever, ever scourges His kids. But before I give you some reasons, I have to be honest and admit that every single commentator I’ve read says He does. As far as I can tell, they all say stuff like this:
“Scourges” means literally to flog or scourge… and entails any suffering which God ordains… God’s chastisement includes not only his “whipping” us so to speak for specific transgressions (but even here with the idea of remedial not retributive intent), but also the entire range of trials and tribulations which he providentially ordains and which work to mortify sin and nurture faith, ultimately serving to conform us to the image of His Son… Notice that “scourges” is in the present tense, which indicates that this is not a one-time event, but can be expected in the lives of those who are truly God’s spiritual children. ~Precept Austin
God scourges us repeatedly. Isn’t that wonderful? No wonder sinners aren’t running into church when we’re preaching stuff like that.
It’s a misquote
Look in the margin notes of your Bible and you will see that Hebrews 12:6 is quoting Proverbs 3:11-12. It’s a direct quote copied from the Old Testament and pasted into the New. Let’s put the original Proverb and the Hebrews version side by side and see if you can spot any differences:
|Original Quote from Prov 3:11-12||Copied in Hebrews 12:5-6|
|My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord,
Nor detest His correction;
For whom the Lord loves He corrects,
Just as a father the son in whom He delights.
|My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord,
Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him
For whom the Lord loves He chastens,
And scourges every son whom He receives.
According to Adam Clarke, the Victorian theologian, the incorrectly translated verse is the one on the left. According to him, God scourges us in both testaments.
The problem with Clarke’s interpretation is that paints a picture of God wholly inconsistent with His character, as revealed in Jesus. What is the best translation of the Bible? It’s not the Septuagint – it’s Jesus! (Heb 1:3)
Scourge comes from the Hebrew word “biqqoret,” which means to “inquire deeply.” The early church scholar, Clement (ca. 150–215), and others believed that Hebrews was written in Hebrew and later translated into Greek. Interestingly, more than 150 words used in Hebrews don’t appear in any other epistles. In fact, some expressions aren’t found in biblical or classical Greek at all. On top of that, the epistle’s literary characteristics mirror Hebrew poetry at times. So either Hebrews as a whole or just the altered Old Testament quote in verse 6 may have been written in Hebrew and later translated to Greek. This would mean that the original author used the Hebrew word biqqoret, a word translatable as “scourge” (mastigoo) in Greek. It would also mean the translator didn’t consider or perhaps showed bias against the older meaning of biqqoret, which is “to inquire into” and such we end up with a horrific translation of God shredding our flesh to the point of near death.
So there is both historical and literary evidence that the epistle (or just the altered Old Testament quote) may have been written in Hebrew and later mistranslated using the expression “scourge” (Greek: mastigoo) in verse 6. Coincidentally, the Hebrew word “biqqoret” stems from the word “baqar” which means “to plow” and the writer of Hebrews goes on in verse 11 to say that God’s discipline “produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those trained by it.”
Essentially, Hebrews 12 may be conveying this: God deeply inquiries into our lives as He disciplines us, so that we can experience a harvest of righteousness and peace.
So while some might think God is beating us with a scourge I’d say that Jesus was scourged in our place and “by His stripes we are healed.” Yes, God cares about behavior but instead of beating us, He inquires deeply into us and points back to the right path.
To help you settle this in your own mind, I want to give you couple of reasons why God never scourges His children.
- 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 10:17, 23:34). Given this context, to say that a God scourges His sons implies that God acts like the unjust, which He doesn’t.
- 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, 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 (Heb 11:36). To read Heb 12:6 as scourging is like saying, “God is punishing you for believing in Him.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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. You may have in mind what happened when Jesus drove the merchants from the temple. You might know that the cattle can be hard to move without a sharp whack on their rears. I reckon that’s what the whip of cords was for. There’s no record Jesus ever struck anyone with anything. But when it comes to clearing the merchants out of the temple, nothing would be more effective than a herd of stampeding oxen.
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 4:16).
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.