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What is the Meaning of "Rebuke" in the Bible? Definition and Application

How do we define rebuke? We commonly think of rebuke as an adverse confrontation, but Proverbs 27:5-6 says, “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.”

Updated Nov 29, 2023
What is the Meaning of "Rebuke" in the Bible? Definition and Application

"You rebuke the insolent, accursed ones, who wander from your commandments." ~ Psalm 119:21, emphasis added

"As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear." ~ 1 Timothy 5:20, emphasis added

In the Bible, the term "rebuke" is used to convey a strong expression of disapproval, reproof, or correction. It often implies a stern or sharp criticism intended to correct someone's behavior, attitude, or actions. The concept of rebuke is closely tied to discipline, correction, and the pursuit of righteousness.

When a fellow brother or sister does something that runs contrary to Scripture, we should remind them of the truth of Scripture in love. In this article, we'll explore the biblical definition of rebuke. We'll also discuss when a Christian should step in and rebuke someone and how to do it. Finally, we'll analyze what Scripture has to say about rebuking. Let's dive in!

Meaning of Rebuke in the Bible

For a simple definition, according to the King James Dictionary, rebuke means "To reprimand; strongly warn; restrain." For a biblical context, the King James Dictionary provides the following scripture:

"And when he was come nigh, even now at the descent of the mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen; saying, Blessed be the King that cometh in the name of the Lord: peace in heaven, and glory in the highest. And some of the Pharisees from among the multitude said unto him, Master, REBUKE thy disciples. And he answered and said unto them, I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out." (Luke 19:37-40, emphasis added)

Furthermore, the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia gives the following explanation of the term rebuke:

As a verb "rebuke" is in the Old Testament the translation of ga`ar and yakhach; another word, ribh, in Nehemiah 5:7, is in the Revised Version (British and American) translated "contended with." "Rebuke" (noun) is most frequently the translation of ge`arah; also in the King James Version of cherpah (Isaiah 25:8; Jeremiah 15:15, the Revised Version (British and American) "reproach"), and of a few other words signifying reproach, etc. "Rebuker" (mucar, literally, "correction," "chastisement") in Hosea 5:2 has the Revised Version margin "Hebrew `rebuke.'" 

In the New Testament "to rebuke" is most often the translation of epitimao (Matthew 8:26; 16:22; 17:18, etc.); also in the King James Version of elegcho, always in the Revised Version (British and American) rendered "reprove" (1 Timothy 5:20; Titus 1:13; 2:15; Hebrews 12:5; Revelation 3:19). Another word is epipletto (once, 1 Timothy 5:1); "without rebuke" in Philippians 2:15 is in the Revised Version (British and American) "without blemish." On the other hand, the Revised Version (British and American) has "rebuke" for several words in the King James Version, as for "reprove" (2 Kings 19:4; Isaiah 37:4), "reproof" (Job 26:11; Proverbs 17:10), "charged" (Mark 10:48). In Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3, the English Revised Version has "reprove" for "rebuke," and in the margin "decide concerning," which is text in the American Standard Revised Version. In Ecclesiasticus 11:7 we have the wise counsel: "Understand first, and then rebuke" (epitimao).

Definition of Rebuke

For a modern definition, Vocabulary.com gives the following description of rebuke as it may be used in a contemporary context:

The word rebuke can be a verb, meaning to sternly reprimand or scold, but it can also be a noun, because a rebuke is the result of being scolded. The root comes from the Old French rebuchier and means "to hack down," or "beat back." A rebuke, then, is meant to be critical and to chide — in today's terms, a rebuke is verbal smack-down! 

To rebuke someone is to criticize him or her pointedly for a particular observed sinful behavior. The Greek word most often translated as “rebuke” in the New Testament is elegchó. In its most comprehensive understanding, elegchó means “to reprimand and convict by exposing (sometimes publicly) a wrong.” There are moments when we all should be rebuked if we fall into sin, and there are times when a believer needs to rebuke another believer with love and discernment.

Bible Themes of Rebuking

Correction and Reproof: Rebuking in the biblical context involves pointing out errors, wrongdoing, or sin with the intention of correcting or admonishing the individual. It is an expression of disapproval meant to bring about positive change.

Discipline and Instruction: The Bible teaches that rebuke is a form of discipline and instruction. Proverbs 3:12 (NIV) states, "because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in." The idea is that rebuke, when done with love and a desire for the individual's well-being, can lead to growth and improvement.

Scriptural Basis: The concept of rebuke is found throughout the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments. For example, in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NIV), it is said that all Scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.

Responsibility of Believers: The Bible encourages believers to engage in rebuke when necessary, particularly in the context of addressing sin or moral lapses within the community of faith. Matthew 18:15 (NIV) instructs, "If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you."

God's Rebuke: There are instances in the Bible where God Himself is described as rebuking individuals or nations, often in response to disobedience or unrighteousness. For example, the Psalms frequently mention God's rebuke as a means of correction.

When Should We Rebuke Others?

We commonly think of rebuke as an adverse confrontation, but Proverbs 27:5-6 says, “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” Paul tells Titus, as an official of the church, to “speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority” (Titus 2:15), indicating that all three actions are of equivalent significance.

Proper Christian rebuking starts from the heart. Before we confront anyone about anything, we should first consider our own motives. First Corinthians 16:14 says, “Let everything be done in love,” including rebuking someone. There is a right way and a wrong way to rebuke someone. Wrong rebuking arises from pride, wrath, resentment, envy, or other egotistical attitudes. The aim of a misguided rebuke is to harm, shame, or self-righteously judge a fellow Christian. Many of the Bible’s teachings against judging others relate to those who rebuke others for the very things they do themselves (Matthew 7:3-5). Paul wrote, “I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27).

Jesus gave explicit directions for managing situations in which a fellow Christian is engaging in a sin: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over” (Matthew 18:15). We all sin in many ways, but when another believer is choosing sin that harms themself, someone else, or the body of Christ, we are to intervene. A rebuke is needed at times, as we must care for each other and live in truth. James 5:20 says, “Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” A confrontation may be difficult, but it is not loving to allow a self-proclaimed Christian to proceed in a sin that will bring God’s judgment upon them or their family.

Bible Verses about Rebuke

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness ~ 2 Timothy 3:16

“You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. ~ Leviticus 19:17

As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. ~ 1 Timothy 5:20

But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” ~ 1 Corinthians 5:11-13

A rebuke goes deeper into a man of understanding than a hundred blows into a fool. ~ Proverbs 17:10

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. ~ Galatians 6:1

A wise son hears his father's instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke. ~ Proverbs 13:1

Let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. ~ James 5:20

Rebuking doesn't often seem glamorous. If we find a brother or sister off the path, we should remind them of the truth and hope of Jesus Christ and help them return to the path of righteousness. However, most importantly, we should rebuke ourselves and recognize the sins of our own lives!

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