Rebuke. In a society obsessed with always being politically correct and constantly walking on egg shells, even the mention of word itself ruffles feathers. Rebuke implies authority, and, goodness knows, our generation and culture are skeptical at best or deeply cynical at worst toward any hint of authority.
To be honest, I don’t even like the word. Exhortation sounds so much more delectable to me. A nice heaping dose of encouragement, a complement: I will gladly snuggle up to those. But, rebuke? No, thanks. I hate getting in trouble. I hate messing up. Even the most gentle correction sounds and feels harsh to my overly sensitive soul.
Yet, time and again, in Scripture and in the continuing life of the body of Christ, people have been rebuilt and restored by expert use of the rod of rebuke.
Solomon, known and celebrated for his wisdom by those both inside and outside the faith, recognized that love includes rebuke at times. It is better to heed the rebuke of a wise person than to listen to the song of fools (Ecclesiastes 7:5).
But the song of fools sure does sound much more palatable to us, doesn’t it?
Christ himself, the one whom John heralded was “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14), gave out his fair share of rebukes. We tend to want to focus on the grace, remembering His gentleness, which is only natural; however, when studying the gospels, it becomes clear that rebuke was a strong part of the loving Christ’ repertoire. Love involves gently telling people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. Love also involves receiving often-needed, usually-unwelcomed truths from those we trust.
In the Scriptures, the word rebuke is often communicated and depicted as the rod of discipline.
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters, he refreshes my soul….Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me (Psalm 23, emphasis mine).
We, Christians, love the 23rd Psalm. We engrave it on plates and paint it on walls and hang it on keychains, as well we should. But we would do well to recognize how a good shepherd in the ancient Middle East used their staff and rod to protect and what they protected the sheep from.
Phillip Keller, an actual shepherd, helps to flesh out the tools of the shepherd in his helpful book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. He writes the following:
“The rod was, in fact, an extension of the owner’s own right arm. It stood as a symbol of his strength, his power, his authority in any serious situation. The rod was what he relied on to safeguard both himself and his flock in danger. And it was, furthermore, the instrument he used to discipline and correct any wayward sheep that insisted on wandering away.”
Most of us welcome the rod used for protection; however, most of us shy away from and recoil at the thought of the rod of correction. Protecting us from outside danger seems to be one thing, but protecting us from the danger we are to ourselves seems to be quite another.
Below, Keller explains another less obvious use of the rod by the Shepherd: that of a loving inspection.
“Because of their long wool it is not always easy to detect disease, wounds or defects in sheep…In caring for his sheep, the good shepherd, the careful manager, will from time to time make a careful examination of each individual sheep….He opens the fleece with the rod; he runs his skillful hands over the body; he feels for any sign of trouble, he examines the sheep with care to see that all is well.”
Haunting memories of teachers combing through each student’s head in grade school come immediately to mind. Embarrassing: yes. Uncomfortable at times: yes. Intimate and loving: two more resounding yeses.
“If we will allow it, if we will submit to it, God by His Word will search us. There will be no ‘pulling the wool over his eyes.’ He will get below the surface, behind the front of our old self-life and expose things that need to be made right.”
In my sober, rational moments, which I have from time to time, I find myself comforted by the Lord’s gracious wielding of rebuke and the rod in my life. I don’t like being nudged and prodded from destructive ruts I tend to fall into, but I know the pain they reap in the long run. Likewise, the inspection process sounds harrowing, but I don’t want a parasite to suck away at my inner life, undetected until its damage is irreversible. I want to pass under the rod, especially if it is merely an extension of His sacrificially scarred hand.