How Wise Reprovers Aid Erring Ones
“An earring of gold . . . is a wise reprover upon the hearing ear.”—Prov. 25:12.
1, 2. What results from response or failure to respond to God’s reproof, and what do elders need in order to be wise reprovers?
LONG ago the faithful man Elihu said of Jehovah God: “He will uncover their ear to exhortation, and he will say that they should turn back from what is hurtful. If they obey and serve, they will finish their days in what is good and their years in pleasantness. But if they do not obey, they will pass away even by a missile, and they will expire without knowledge. And those apostate in heart will themselves lay up anger. They should not cry for help because he has bound them.”—Job 36:10-13.
2 Christian elders rightly desire to show themselves to be wise reprovers so as to ‘turn back erring ones from what is hurtful.’ Obviously, this requires that they understand what is meant by “reproof” in the Bible.
HOW “REPROOF” AND “REBUKE” DIFFER
3. What is a rebuke, and what is generally its purpose?
3 In the Bible, in its original languages, we find certain words used to express the idea of reproving and others to express the thought of rebuking. What is the difference? “To rebuke” means to criticize sharply or censure severely, to “reprimand.” A “rebuke” may be simply an expression of strong disapproval and is often intended principally to get someone to stop some offensive or undesirable action or speech. (Compare Genesis 37:10; Job 11:3.) For example, when Jesus’ disciples were acclaiming him as he made his way to Jerusalem, the Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples,” meaning, in effect, ‘Tell them to stop saying those things.’ Jesus replied that “if these remained silent, the stones would cry out.”—Luke 19:39, 40.
4 For “rebuke” the inspired Gospel writer here used the Greek word e·pi·ti·maʹo. The Greek word corresponding to “reprove” is the word e·lengʹkho. At Matthew 18:15 that word appears when Jesus says that “if your brother commits a sin, go lay bare his fault [Greek, e·lengʹkho; Kingdom Interlinear, “reprove”] between you and him alone.” (Compare Leviticus 19:17.) In a corresponding passage at Luke 17:3 Jesus is reported as saying, “If your brother commits a sin give him a rebuke [Greek, e·pi·ti·maʹo], and if he repents forgive him.” Does that show that “rebuke” and “reproof” are interchangeable and mean essentially the same thing? It would be unwise to assume that on the basis of this single example. The way the Scriptures use the two terms reveals the distinction between them.
5, 6. What examples illustrate that these two terms are really distinct in meaning, and what does this indicate concerning their use in the two texts mentioned earlier?
5 In the Christian Greek Scriptures, for example, we find Jesus ‘rebuking’ (e·pi·ti·maʹo) demons, telling them to ‘be silent’ and to ‘get out’ of persons that they were possessing. (Matt. 17:18; Mark 1:25; 9:25; Luke 4:35, 41; 9:42) Nowhere do the Bible writers speak of the demons as being reproved (e·lengʹkho) by Jesus. He also ‘rebuked’ the fever in Peter’s mother-in-law, causing it to leave her; and, on the Sea of Galilee, he ‘rebuked’ the violent winds and raging sea, putting a stop to their threat of capsizing the boat in which he and his disciples were.—Luke 4:39; Matt. 8:26; Mark 4:39; Luke 8:24.
6 It would be most inappropriate to try to substitute the word “reprove” (e·lengʹkho) in the foregoing cases. One can rebuke even an animal. (Ps. 68:30) But, as we shall see, only humans who have the power of reason and qualities of heart and conscience can be reproved. So it appears that the use of the word “rebuke” at Luke 17:3, earlier referred to, simply illustrates that a reproof may be accompanied by or include a rebuke.
7. What was the sense of the Greek word for “reprove” that the inspired Bible writers used, as that term was employed by people of their day?
7 To what, then, does the Greek word e·lengʹkho (to reprove) refer? It is true that this word at one time was used in classical Greek to express the idea of “to disgrace” or “to shame.” But Greek lexicons show that this was not how the word was generally used.a And they show that in the Christian Greek Scriptures this is definitely not the dominant thought of the word. Note these definitions of e·lengʹkho (to reprove) from Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon:
To “cross-examine, question, . . . accuse one of doing, . . . to be convicted. . . . 2. test, bring to the proof. . . . 3. prove . . . bring convincing proof. . . . 4. refute, . . . b. put right, correct. . . . 5. get the better of. . . . 6. expose.”
8. What does this show as to the basic reason why reproof was needed?
8 These definitions are based largely on the way non-Biblical Greek writings use the word. But one thing is quite clear from these definitions. They all indicate that the person who has to be reproved manifests, if not an outright denial of any wrongdoing, at least an unwillingness to admit the wrong or some degree of failure to recognize the true nature of the wrong and the need to repent of it. Such a one shows that he needs to be “convinced” or “convicted” of the wrong. We will see why this point is an important one to remember.
9, 10. How does the Bible also show that it is failure to recognize and repent of the wrong that makes reproof necessary?
9 These definitions are borne out by the Bible’s use of the Greek word. For example, note the text earlier referred to at Matthew 18:15 where Jesus says that “if your brother commits a sin, go lay bare his fault [e·lengʹkho; “reprove (him),” Kingdom Interlinear] between you and him alone.” It is for the very reason that the offender does not recognize or acknowledge his sin and repent of it that the offended one has to reprove him by laying bare his fault.
10 Other scriptures where this word (e·lengʹkho) is used also describe reproof of those who, up to that point, had not accepted correction, showing this by keeping on in their wrongdoing.—Compare Luke 3:19; John 3:20; Ephesians 5:6, 7, 11-14; 2 Timothy 4:2-4; Titus 1:9-13; 2 Peter 2:15, 16.
11, 12. (a) What does the Scriptural way for reproving wrongdoers therefore include as an essential feature, and what is this to accomplish? (b) How can the difference between “rebuke” and “reproof” be illustrated in parental discipline of children?
11 By what means, then, are persons reproved? Reproving involves far more than simply making an accusation or expressing condemnation of what someone has done (as in a rebuke); It therefore also involves much more than simply reading off an announcement that someone has engaged in wrong conduct. The Bible shows that reproof requires the presentation of evidence or argument. (Compare Hebrews 11:1, where the noun e·lengʹkhos is translated “evident demonstration” of realities.) So, in highlighting the difference between the Bible terms for “rebuke” and “reprove,” Greek scholar Trench’s Synonyms of the New Testament says:
“One may ‘rebuke’ another without bringing the rebuked to a conviction of any fault on his part; and this, either because there was no fault, and the rebuke was therefore unneeded or unjust [compare Matthew 16:22; 19:13; 20:31]; or else because, though there was such a fault, the rebuke was ineffectual to bring the offender to own it; and in this possibility of ‘rebuking’ for sin, without ‘convincing’ of sin, lies the distinction between these two words. . . . eʹleng·khos [reproof] implies not merely the charge, but the truth of the charge, and the manifestation of the truth of the charge; nay more than all this, very often also the acknowledgment, if not outward, yet inward, of its truth on the side of the party accused. . . .”
12 This difference might be compared to the parent who is satisfied with scolding a child to get it to stop something as compared to the parent who is willing to take the time to reason with the child and to help it to see why the wrong action is really bad and why the child should really want to avoid it. While rebukes have their place, often the need for reproof is greater.
13. What two purposes does the evidence given in reproof serve?
13 The presenting of evidence in giving reproof therefore may serve two purposes: It may be to prove that the person did indeed commit the act or acts of which he is accused, or it may be needed to demonstrate or ‘bring home’ to the individual just how wrong his course was. At John 16:8, 9 Jesus said that God’s holy spirit would “give the world convincing evidence [e·lengʹkho; “reprove,” Int] concerning sin . . . because they are not exercising faith in me.” But as for himself, though his opposers might unjustly rebuke him, Jesus knew that they could never present “convincing evidence” of any sin on his part, and so he said to them: “Who of you convicts [e·lengʹkho; “is reproving,” Int] me of sin?”—John 8:46.
THE MOTIVE BEHIND CHRISTIAN REPROOF
14, 15. What, however, is the final aim of Christian reproof and its convincing evidence?
14 But this is not all. For God’s servants, reproof means more than just demonstrating and proving that wrong has been committed (as is often the sense of the term in secular Greek writings). The Bible’s use of the word is distinctive from its secular use. In what way? In that “reproof” in the Scriptures has a motive beyond just convicting wrongdoers or satisfying justice. Focusing on what that motive is, the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Vol. II) says (italics ours):
“The use of e·lengʹkho in the N[ew] T[estament] is restricted. . . . It means ‘to show someone his sin and to summon him to repentance.’ This may be a private matter between two people, as in Mt. 18:15; Eph. 5:11. But it may also be a congregational affair under the leader, as in the Pastorals: 1 Tim. 5:20; 2 Tim. 4:2; Tit. 1:9, 13; 2:15. . . . The word does not mean only ‘to blame’ or ‘to reprove,’ nor ‘to convince’ in the sense of proof, nor ‘to reveal’ or ‘expose,’ but ‘to set right,’ namely, ‘to point away from sin to repentance.’”
15 Bible reproof, then, is not simply to shame or to express disapproval of someone’s wrong action, as a rebuke may be. Instead of simply seeking to get someone to stop some wrong action, the aim of reproof is a positive one, namely, to reach the person’s heart and cause him to come to hate that wrong. So any ‘laying bare’ of a person’s wrong action is not simply to expose him but to gain him as a brother and to try to keep him from being lost from the congregation because of sinking deeper into sin.—Matt. 18:15, 16.
REPROVED BY OUR OWN HEARTS OR THROUGH THE HELP OF OTHERS
16, 17. In answering the question as to the need to reprove one who has already abandoned wrongdoing, what factors should be kept in mind?
16 What, then, if a Christian commits some wrongdoing one or more times, but thereafter his conscience moves him to repent and he turns away from such wrongdoing, abandoning it? Does he still need someone to reprove him?
17 Here we need to keep in mind the meaning of the word “reprove” (e·lengʹkho). We have seen that it can carry such thoughts as having to accuse and perhaps question or cross-examine a person, bringing him to the proof of his wrong, or refuting through convincing argument his wrong viewpoint about some admitted action, thereby convicting him in his own mind and heart. And all of this with a view to bringing him to repentance, so that he will not only stop the wrong practice but will not return to it.
18. Can a person be reproved by his own heart, and, if so, how?
18 In the situation mentioned earlier, however, of one who repents of his sin and abandons it, has not the wrongdoer, in effect, already reproved himself? Yes, his own conscience does the accusing and God’s Word and spirit do the convicting and his heart moves him to repent and turn away from the wrongdoing. He does not require someone else to ‘lay bare his fault’ in order to get him to acknowledge and correct his wrong course.—Compare Psalm 16:7; Jeremiah 2:19.
19. What example do we find of this in Peter’s actions?
19 This was evidently the case with the apostle Peter. Jesus had warned Peter that he would deny his Lord three times. When the difficult circumstances of Jesus’ arrest and trial came, Peter showed weakness and did indeed deny Jesus on three occasions. Yet, it took only a glance from Jesus to reach Peter’s heart and cause him to go out and weep bitterly in repentance for what he had done. His own heart and his memory of Jesus’ earlier words had reproved him. Peter’s course from then on testified to his determination not to be guilty again of a similar grave wrong. Some weeks later Jesus saw fit to use Peter as one of the ‘foundation stones’ in forming the Christian congregation.—Luke 22:54-62.
20, 21. (a) Even though determined not to return to wrongdoing, of what provision can a person wisely avail himself? (b) Why did David need reproof, and how did Nathan give this to him?
20 This does not mean that one may not need help in such cases. Though there may be the determination not to return to some wrong, there may well be the need of help by others to strengthen that resolve. Jehovah God has provided brothers to help us in that way.—Prov. 17:17; Luke 22:31, 32; Gal. 6:2.
21 Different from Peter, at an earlier time King David needed someone to reprove him. He had committed misdeeds of a very serious kind, resulting in great harm to others. Yet he had not faced up to the wrongness of his course and, instead, had sought ways to cover over his wrongdoing. For that reason God sent the prophet Nathan to reprove David. Nathan did this by using a powerful and graphic illustration that depicted a situation paralleling David’s. Incensed at the selfishness of the man portrayed in Nathan’s illustration, David condemned the man’s cruel lack of compassion. Nathan then shocked David by saying, “You yourself are the man!” Seeing his actions in their true light and understanding and feeling keenly how base they really were, David now repented. To fail to do so would have made him a fit subject for death, as he himself had admitted.—2 Sam. 12:1-13.
22. How does David express a fine attitude toward reproof and also show the great benefits that repentance brings?
22 In one of his psalms, David expressed the right attitude toward reproof, saying: “Should the righteous one strike me, it would be a loving-kindness; and should he reprove me, it would be oil upon the head, which my head would not want to refuse.” (Ps. 141:5) Further, in Psalm 32:1-6, David described the agonizing suffering he personally experienced due to failing to seek Jehovah’s pardon for sins committed and the blessed relief that repentance and confession to God brought him.
23. What will wise reprovers recognize, and how do the texts cited in this paragraph illustrate this?
23 To be wise reprovers, congregational shepherds also need to keep in mind that, just as wrongdoing can vary widely in gravity, so too reproof may have a wide range of degrees of severity. (Compare Galatians 6:1; 2 Timothy 2:24-26 with Titus 1:13.) Even those who are making a fine record as servants of God may at times need reproof on some wrong viewpoint, speech or action.
24, 25. Is it possible for faithful servants of God also to need reproof, and what good results do they obtain from this?
24 That was true of Peter on a later occasion. Galatians 2:11-14 relates that when he went to Antioch in Syria he fraternized with uncircumcised non-Jews, eating meals with them. But when certain men from the Jerusalem congregation (men who evidently still held to the idea of Jewish separateness) came to Antioch, Peter stopped associating with Christian Gentiles. The apostle Paul, seeing this erroneous course and its bad effects on other Jewish believers, felt obligated to reprove Peter. By sound argument he showed Peter the wrongness of his course, doing so publicly in the hearing of those present. There can be no doubt that Peter accepted this reproof and he later refers to Paul with warm appreciation.—2 Pet. 3:15, 16.
25 Yes, as Proverbs 9:8, 9 says: “Give a reproof to a wise person and he will love you. Give to a wise person and he will become still wiser.” There “should be a reproving of the understanding one, that he may discern knowledge,” as was the case with Peter. May we, then, always have our ears open to receive the wise “reproofs of discipline” that are the “way of life” to all those loving God and his righteousness.—Prov. 19:25; 6:23; 25:12.
a Robinson’s Lexicon of the New Testament says of e·lengʹkho: “to shame, to disgrace, only in Homer [a Greek poet of pre-Christian times]. . . . Usually and in N[ew] T[estament] to convince, . . . to refute, to prove one in the wrong.”
Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament says: “In earlier classical Greek it signifies to disgrace or put to shame . . . Then [later], to cross-examine or question, for the purpose of convincing, convicting, or refuting. . . . Of arguments, to bring to the proof; prove; prove by a chain of reasoning.” (Italics ours)