In the Bible, discipline has a positive and essential place in the lives of God's people. God had prescribed a way of life for His people. They had to learn how to be obedient. The process by which God's people learned obedience was the “discipline of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 11:2 NIV).
Discipline comes from a Latin word “disco” which means to learn or get to know, a direct kind of acquaintance with something or someone. Discipline refers to the process by which one learns a way of life. A disciple was like an apprentice who was learning a trade or craft from a master. Such learning required a relationship between the master who knew the way of life (discipline) and a learner (a disciple). Within this relationship, the master led a learner through a process (the discipline) until the learner could imitate or live like the master.
In the Old Testament, the covenant relationship between God and His people made Yahweh the Master. Through praise and correction, God led His people. The goal was to bring His people to a kind of maturity where obedience was the rule rather than the exception. Parents, judges, kings, prophets, and wisemen worked with God in teaching His people. Successful discipline resulted in a life pleasing to God. The earliest setting for discipline was the family (Deuteronomy 6:20-25).
The prophets established “schools of the prophet.” Elijah became a master to Elisha (1 Kings 19:19-21). Isaiah chose some Judeans who would learn his message through living with him (Isaiah 8:16). This pattern was followed by Jewish rabbis. The rabbi would discipline his disciples (talmidim) through a procedure of praise and correction. This process enabled the disciples to learn the law. Correction was seldom physical in nature. Reproof or rebuke was the usual form of correction. The goal was an obedient servant of God, who knew and did what God wanted.
Jesus called twelve men to be His disciples. Through His call, He established a master-learner relation with them. As they lived and worked with Him, Jesus disciplined them in His understanding of what God wanted. Such discipline involved both praise and criticism, affirmation and rebuke. Compare
John 21:1. The success of His mission depended on His training this small group of followers. They would carry on His work after His death and resurrection. The twelve were His apprentices in the work which God called Jesus to do.
The Great Commission places the responsibility for discipling disciples in the hands of the church. The believers are to teach them “to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). “To observe” is much more than simple knowledge. Observance is to live in obedience to the commands of Jesus. Learning and doing what Jesus wants requires a process, a discipline. Becoming like Christ is the result of the discipline of the Lord Jesus Christ, exercised in and through His church. Hence, churches throughout their history have sought to teach their members the way of the Lord through “church discipline.”
Apart from the Gospels, the concept of discipline appears most prominently in the ethical teachings of Paul and the Letter to the Hebrews. Paul admonished the Ephesians to bring their children up “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4 NAS). Such an education was to avoid the heavy-handed, physical brutality practiced by their pagan neighbors. Discipline was not to evoke anger from the children (Ephesians 6:4). The writer of Hebrews pictures God treating the faithful as sons (Hebrews 12:7). As a loving Father, God disciplines the believing community. Such discipline is evidence of His love because the end result of such action is blessing (Hebrews 12:10).
Discipline, biblically understood, results in blessing. God's people learn how to serve Him. Through praise and correction, their lives are shaped into a pattern of consistent obedience and love. Within “the discipline of the Lord,” expressed in and through the Lord Jesus Christ, one can live the kind of life which is pleasing to God and of benefit to others.