From eating vegetables to visiting the dentist, there are many things in life we need but do not want. To stay healthy, we endure needles, checkups, and the occasional cabbage, though we’d rather ignore them all.
As Christians, we don’t usually want God’s discipline. It’s painful, but we need it. Our disobedience is both offensive to God and bad for us. But God corrects us out of love; in fact, God proves we are his children through his discipline (Hebrews 12:7–8).
Fine. But how exactly does God rebuke us?
Providence or Revelation?
Many will point to circumstances. They cite the “difficult providences of God” (illness, loss of a job, natural disasters, etc.) as the way God shows his displeasure.
But outward suffering is no more evidence of sin than material blessing is a sign of obedience. (See Psalm 37, Psalm 73, or Luke 13:1–5.) We rarely learn the reasons behind God’s providence.
However, the Bible provides direct revelation of God’s will. Even in difficult circumstances, God rebukes his children through his word. This happens in three main ways.
1. God’s Rebuke Through Preaching
When Paul wrote to Timothy, he included these words about the Bible.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16–17)
Since the phrase “man of God” recalls a common Old Testament term for a prophet, Paul probably had a pastor’s preaching in mind. This is consistent with Paul’s teaching elsewhere that pastors/elders should rebuke those in error. (See especially 1 Tim 5:20, 2 Tim 4:2, Titus 1:9; 1:13; 2:15.)
Therefore, one of the purposes of a preacher’s message is to rebuke Christians.
Don’t get the wrong idea. You might dislike the idea of rebuke because you picture angry, fire-and-brimstone preachers heaping guilt on the congregation and bringing everyone to tears.
But rebuke is simply correction. God corrects us because it is better to obey than to disobey. Our blindness to sin (coupled with our forgetfulness) means we need a lot of correction.
Rebuke from the pulpit is the explanation and specific application of a Biblical text. This is what happened in Nehemiah 8, when the reading (verses 3–6) and explanation (verses 7 and 8) of the law prompted tears (verse 9) and extensive confession of sin (chapter 9).
2. God’s Rebuke Through Private Bible Reading
Though the words rebuke and reprove are often associated with preaching, the Holy Spirit can correct us in private. (See John 14:26 and John 16:13–15.) This usually happens during personal Bible reading.
We have a few Biblical examples. In Acts 8:26–40, we read that God prepared the Ethopian eunuch for Philip’s visit through private meditation on Isaiah 53. In 2 Kings 22:11–13, Josiah was convicted by a private reading of the law.
The Spirit convicts us as we read and study the Bible. To learn how to study the Bible, I recommend the book Knowable Word or this series of blog posts.
3. God’s Rebuke Through Other Christians
God also rebukes us through others. As examples, consider Priscilla and Aquila correcting Apollos in Acts 18:26 or Paul confronting Peter in Galatians 2:11–14. Jesus went beyond an example and commanded his disciples to rebuke brothers in sin (Luke 17:3–4).
Further, the language of reproof is all over Proverbs. Solomon assumes those seeking wisdom will give and receive correction.
Wise men love reproof (Prov 9:8), and there is honor for those who heed it (Prov 13:18). Rebuke goes deep into a man of understanding (Prov 17:10), and the wise reprover is like gold to those who will listen (Prov 25:12). In summary, fools resist instruction, but the wise seek it and grow.
This sort of rebuke happens when a friend applies Biblical truth to your life in a corrective way. By God’s grace, you see the need to change your thinking, your desires, or your behavior and you move forward in repentance.
If God disciplines us in these ways, what does it mean for us?
In short, we should invite the Lord’s rebuke. That may sound scary, but encountering the Bible is a serious matter. Sometimes God’s correction is exactly what we need.
Before listening to the Bible taught or preached, before reading it privately or with your small group, pray that God would rebuke you as needed. Ask God to prepare you to receive correction from your friends.
This requires humility. We must acknowledge our weakness and sin; we should thank God for his wisdom and love in correcting us.
Any reproof we receive points us back to the gospel. The only correction Jesus justly received was the divine rebuke for our sin on the cross. His rebuke ensures that we are rebuked as forgiven children, not as exiled criminals. Further, Jesus’s perfect obedience secures the privilege we have of God’s fatherly correction.
And, thank God, it’s Jesus’s power that makes change possible.