Rebuke, Definition: a telling-off (n) to tell-off (v)
Bad Day, Definition: when every word of the bible seems to be a rebuke.
These are only informal, personal definitions and, as you can see, seriously limited. I frequently have felt as though God is pointing a stern finger at me while I shivered in the cold, dark pit of self-loathing. Every word of scripture appeared to accuse me of something. I had forgotten His character and His promises, of course. If I felt rebuked by Him, that’s because I was drowning in self-inflicted misery and pointing a finger at myself. God was actually waiting patiently for me to look up and take his hand. His rebuke is never a finger-pointing ego-smashing event with a maniacal laugh tacked on the end (mwa-ha-ha-HA!)
More than a Pity Party
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘rebuke’ (v) ‘to criticize sharply’; ‘reprimand’; ‘to turn back or keep down’; ‘check’. The Cambridge dictionary provides these synonyms: ‘speak angrily, admonish, lambast’. Yep; sounds like the makings of a typical pity-party to me; exactly how I talk to myself when I mess up or believe I have. I say ‘you are so STUPID Candice; no wonder God isn’t talking to you right now! God has every right to keep me down or turn me back.’
But he doesn’t actually do those things to His children; He reprimands and criticizes when we need to be kept in check, but His objective is never to make us feel small or to debase us. When my mind hits the light, I see that I was talking to myself, not to God, and that was my first mistake.
Besides, if my Father in heaven was really turning me back or keeping me down, my pity party would look like a day at Disneyland by comparison. Rebuke means something far stronger when God does it; all the letters would be capitals.
Set your sights about 700 years back in time when ‘rebuke’ could mean ‘to reprimand, reprove; chide, scold’ as above or, from Anglo-French rebuker ‘to repel, beat back’, similar to ‘check’ as above. The ‘buke’ or ‘beat-back’ part comes from the Proto-Germanic word ‘busk’ (etymonline.com) and would refer to a person beating back a fire or, during war, fighting back against invading forces.
One has to possess some serious authority to beat back a fire, demons, and even illness: Jesus did all of those things. He was in the fiery furnace with Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego. He told demons where to go. Jesus scolded a fever and it left Simon’s mother-in-law (Luke 4:39). That’s mojo straight from the Father. ‘Busk’ indeed. I imagined a man in a tunnel playing a guitar, case open in front of him, singing songs by Elvis and the Beatles. The two meanings of ‘busk’ are unrelated according to etymonline.com. The mid-19th Century recognized ‘busker’ as part singer of crude tunes, part pirate. The local vicar might have wished to beat him back, but he might also have sung along in the pub while holding a pint of bitter in one hand and a double-whiskey in the other. I’ve been to a few of those pubs and met one or two of those vicars. Back in my bad old days. We can talk about those later.
Let’s get our minds out of the pub and assign value where it is due: God’s Word. Strong’s Greek (BibleHub.com) translates the word rebuke to epitimáō: ‘epi’ meaning ‘suitably on’ plus ‘timáō’ or ‘esteem, place value’. ‘Epitome’ is a familiar and similar English word indicating when something or someone exemplifies characteristics typically associated with a type (Stalin is the epitome of evil). You can probably hear how close the two words are to one another, but ‘epitome’ can assign a positive or negative value to something or someone. More fully understood, ‘rebuke’ means to ‘mete out due measure, hence to censure’ which is always negative, although the outcome can be positive, especially when a Christian accepts criticism meant for improvement and not for humiliation. (By the way, the Hebrew ‘gaar’ is straightforward: chide, corrupt, rebuke, reprove.) I am confused, however, by how strong the word feels even though it is sometimes applied as more of a gentle scolding. Context can imbue a single word with more meaning than it possesses otherwise.
High School Composition with a Georgian Aside
High school essays take one of several formats, including the famous compare and contrast. For instance, I was required to demonstrate how a fictional character resembled an historical one, but also how the two characters differed. I remember writing how Simon in Lord of the Flies by William Golding reminded me of a martyred disciple of the same name; that is, Simon (Peter) from the New Testament. That’s all I remember about the compare and contrast, sorry, I preferred Jane Austen. My knowledge of the bible was embarrassingly limited at that time, but I must have made a convincing argument because that essay earned a high mark from Mrs. Marr. Few of my high school memories are tinged with joy, but Mrs. Marr features in many of the most positive moments. She ranks alongside Mr. Rawlins as one of the best teachers who ever blessed the profession.
We also had to discuss themes in Grade 12, like the theme of reputation which runs through Jane Austen’s novels or the theme of futility seen in Ecclesiastes: ‘I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.’ (1:14 ESV) At times, the Gospel of Luke makes me think of a compare and contrast essay with the theme of rebuke. He describes sinners from Israel and Gentile sinners; people who needed Christ’s saving work – his rebuke – equally, but who responded to the truth differently. John is a constant rebuke, all in the hope of leading Jews back to the Father and preparing sinners for the coming Messiah so they would not go to hell. His heart was definitely in the best place and he was following the Lord’s call on his life. One can only imagine what sorts of mistakes he could possibly have made in order to justify rebuke himself. Maybe drizzling too much honey on his locusts one afternoon? I would have loved to read a Jane Austen rendition of John the Baptist coming out of the wilderness, wouldn’t you?
Cousin John emerged from the desert arrayed in unfamiliar garb. Those who
witnessed his arrival commented on the lack of padding around his cheeks and
neck and wondered if he had been following a new European diet. If so, it would
become fashionable at Bath mused his mother, Elizabeth. Zechariah only lamented
that his son’s thin frame suggested he was unable to secure John a gentleman’s position
as befitted the son of a priest.
Elizabeth despaired of her son’s sense of style, favouring that of his cousin, her nephew,
the popular Jesus who bore a meatier frame which still proclaimed admirable self-
control. Her beloved John would not hear of abandoning his preferred locusts and honey
for provincial dinners with tax collectors. Elizabeth trusted God would provide for John and only wondered if his hard skin would chap from wearing so much of the Jordan River.
Dear Zechariah, however, would fuss over the boy to her dismay. Was he eating well?
Meeting girls? Having received the gift of speech after a short departure of that blessing,
her husband favoured it above all others including that of silence. Elizabeth was only
grateful the entail had fallen to the cousin and not her son; she doubted he could be
prevailed upon to accept the social obligations which would necessarily have fallen to John,
a man of such peculiar habits as would no doubt unnerve the average Israelite.
Back to the Essay
Jesus goes home to Nazareth at the start of His ministry and unrolls the Torah to Isaiah 61. Here he reads that scripture is fulfilled. The people are amazed and eager to know more, but Jesus simply sits down. He tells them he will not be accepted in his hometown, like Elijah and Elisha, and he won’t heal the Nazarenes; he puts them in their place for wanting the blessing without the Messiah. That must be why Jesus was driven out, like a magician who wouldn’t perform tricks on command, except He is so much more than a magician.
Moving at a heady pace after escaping Nazareth, Jesus’ ministry flourishes. He calls out demons and fever and puts them in their place, but responds gently to crowds who try to keep Him close when time comes for Jesus to spread the good news elsewhere.
‘And when it was day, he departed and went into a desolate place. And the people
sought him and came to him, and would have kept him from leaving them, but
he said to them, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other
towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.”’ (Luke 4:42-43)
First, Jesus rebukes his own people. Next, he treats demons and ill health with as much scorn. Thirdly, he softly chides mixed followers who are not kin or fellow Nazarenes; perhaps they are even Gentiles. We see contrasts in methods of addressing crowds and individuals and in how those individuals responded to Him; juxtaposition of Jesus against the powers of Hell; and an unexpected twist in who would follow Jesus and receive His blessing.
Who’s the Boss?
Who has authority? Jesus does, all the time, everywhere. He successfully called out fever and demons and told the Nazarenes they would not be healed, and he did these things with assurance that what he says is, was, and will forevermore be right. When was the last time you told your cat to stop scratching the sofa and he listened? A friend shared how she had rebuked a scary, barking canine trying to intimidate her from the bed of a truck parked downtown. ‘Quiet! In the Name of Jesus!’ She evoked Jesus, THE Boss, and the dog shut up because my friend was confident of Christ’s power working through her as the Holy Spirit. The dog knew it because she knew it. Had she gently asked the beast to please be quiet, there’s a good Fido, the dog would have been boss, not her or, more correctly, not Jesus through her.
For a rebuke to work it must be spoken by someone with authority which we are given in the name of Jesus. That’s why self-rebuke sounds terrible but is powerless; Christ doesn’t stand behind those words of recrimination. He never said you were stupid or ugly or that you would never amount to anything or that he likes your sibling better than you. His words have power because they are true. When he actually criticizes, there is good reason, the purpose is constructive, and there is a balm for the sting. We call that ‘grace’ by the way; a word for another short essay. But don’t take my word for it: go to the text and find out for yourself. That’s what Mrs. Marr would have said. Always go to the primary source for the most accurate information. At the source, you will read that you are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ (Psalm 139:14) and God ‘will exult over you with loud singing’ (Zephaniah 3:17) which is not dependent, by the way, on the results of your compare and contrast essay. Also, when I say ‘go to the text’, I don’t mean Pride and Prejudice. Just to be clear.