Revelation 3:19 is nothing short of shocking. Earlier in v. 16 Jesus expressed disgust towards those in Laodicea, declaring that he is on the verge of vomiting them out of his mouth. Yet now, in v. 19, he affirms his love for them! May I boldly suggest that it is precisely because he loves his people that he refuses to tolerate their lukewarm indifference toward spiritual matters? In other words, the harsh words in this letter, the firm discipline evoked by their backslidden behavior, together with the strong counsel (v. 18) that they “be zealous and repent” (v. 19) are all motivated by our Lord’s love for his own!
If you’re looking for an explanation of our Lord’s posture in relation to Laodicea, you need go no farther than Revelation 3:19. He says and does what we read in this letter because of his loving commitment to them! “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent” (Rev. 3:19). If this passage is to make sense to us we need to understand something about the nature of divine discipline.
Although it sounds good, pain-free Christianity is a contradiction in terms. It doesn’t exist, except in the deceptive sermons of some advocates of the health-and-wealth gospel. If you want to be told that living for Jesus holds forth the potential for ease and comfort and opulence, there is no shortage of preachers and teachers who will be only too happy to oblige you. They live for the opportunity to tickle your ears with promises of no sickness and no suffering for those in whom there is no sin.
The appeal of this false gospel is self-evident. Who wouldn’t want the best of everything with no discomfort, no disabilities, no distress? After all, we’re not masochists! I’m not at all shocked that the prosperity gospel has such a vast and enthusiastic following. When people crave prosperity you can rest assured they’ll flock like geese to the side of whoever it is that’s making the offer.
But there’s no escaping the fact that sometimes love hurts. I don’t mean that it hurts because we love someone who fails to love us back (although, of course, that’s often true). I’m talking about God’s love. Sometimes, because God is love, you will hurt.
Consider the words of Solomon in Proverbs 3:11-12, the passage to which Jesus obviously alludes in Revelation 3:19.
“My son, do not despise the LORD's discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.”
An expanded commentary on Solomon’s counsel is found in Hebrews 12:5-11.
“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.’ 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? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 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? 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. 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.”
The pain of divine discipline is the proof of your Father’s passionate love. Contrary to what many child psychologists and not a few theologians have argued, “discipline is the mark not of a harsh and heartless father but of a father who is deeply and lovingly concerned for the well-being of his son” (Philip Hughes, Hebrews, 528).
“If I am God’s child, why does he allow me to suffer?” is an absurd and inappropriate question. It is because you are his child, dear and precious to his heart, that he cleanses and educates you with various trials.
The discipline in view in Hebrews 12 is likely the sort that is provoked by our sin. When we wander or stray from the path of purity, our loving Father chastens us, whether with physical distress, trials, or other forms of pain. Our author’s point is that, far from a sign of God’s hatred or indifference toward us, his love demands it!
To sin with impunity may at first strike you as attractive until you realize that it serves only to reveal that you are still a spiritual orphan. If you are God’s child, you will receive his discipline. If God loves you, chastening is inevitable.
I’ve known people to express envy of their friends who were raised by parents given to lax, often non-existent, discipline. They’ve lamented the strict and frequently painful measures their own parents imposed, especially during the years of adolescent immaturity and rebellion. But what may at the time have seemed like the ideal father or mother now appears to be a tragic expression of loveless and indifferent neglect.
I wouldn’t say this if it weren’t for the fact that the author of Hebrews says it. So here goes. To go through life pain-free, void of discipline, is to be a spiritual bastard (cf. Heb. 12:8). A life free of hardship signals that you are no child of God. Rejoice, therefore, in your distress, for it proves you have a Father who cares enough to chasten.
Whereas it is true that the discipline in view here is provoked by disobedience, that isn’t always the case. There are lessons in the Christian life that cannot be learned apart from a rigorous and often painful process. God’s love does not always provide us with a quick fix or an easy out. It isn’t for lack of love that we are frequently left to struggle and fall and suffer both physical and spiritual injury. Sometimes love requires it.
Paul learned this from his thorn in the flesh. However you choose to interpret the thorn, one thing is clear: the discomfort it inflicted was essential to his holiness. He wasn’t being punished because of his sin. Rather, the thorn was God’s device for keeping him from it (“To keep me from being too elated . . . a thorn was given me in the flesh . . .” 2 Cor. 12:7).
J. I. Packer encourages us to think of this in terms of the training of children. He points out what every parent certainly knows, namely, that if “there are never any difficult situations that demand self-denial and discipline, if there are never any sustained pressures to cope with, if there are never any long-term strategies where the child must stick with an educational process, or an apprenticeship, or the practice of a skill, for many years in order to advance, there will never be any maturity of character” (Rediscovering Holiness, 215).
Our children may beg to differ. But if we cater to their demands in this regard they will grow up soft and spoiled, because everything will have been made too easy for them. Our Heavenly Father, on the other hand, will never allow that to happen in the lives of his children.
The final lesson to learn about God’s chastening love is that although painful, it is always profitable. “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant,” writes the author of Hebrews, “but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).
In other words, pain hurts! But it’s also helpful. God doesn’t expect us to grit our teeth and deny that trials are troublesome. He knows the discomfort we feel in body and soul. He also knows that occasionally there simply is no other, or at least no better, way of cultivating holiness in the stubborn soil of our souls.
The next time you’re hurting and tempted to question God’s love for you, recall these texts (Prov. 3:11-12; Heb. 12:5-11; Rev. 3:19). Remind yourself that the measure of true love is the pursuit of righteousness in the beloved. God permits us to hurt because he is passionately committed to making us holy. There is no love in providing comfort to someone in sin.
I assume that if you were suffering from a recurring pain in your head, you would seek the advice and assistance of your family physician. Suppose he suggested that a couple of aspirin would suffice to eliminate the pain, knowing that its cause was in fact a malignant tumor? Your outrage would be wholly justified.
But what if he responded by saying: “I wanted to tell you the truth but I knew how sad it would make you feel. I knew how painful it would be for you to undergo the required operation. I knew how much of an inconvenience and financial expense it would prove to be, so I thought it would be more loving if I wrote it off as just another headache.”
My guess is that, notwithstanding his expression of love, you would be seriously tempted to sue for malpractice. If this doctor really cared for you he would have taken whatever steps necessary to preserve your life, even if those steps proved painful. Likewise, our Father often has to perform a little spiritual surgery to excise the tumor of sin and rebellion and unbelief. It hurts, it’s confusing, it’s inconvenient, but above all else, it’s loving.
It was a hard lesson for the Laodiceans to learn. Whether or not they eventually grasped this truth and did what Jesus commanded (“be zealous and repent”; see the subsequent meditation) remains a mystery. The only remaining and relevant question is whether we will embrace the discipline of our loving Lord and run to him, rather than from him, when we sin.