Hebrews 12:18-29

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Hebrews 12:18-29

18 For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest 19 and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. 20 For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. 25 See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire.

 

A friend recently told me something that I cannot stop thinking about. Sadly, I have heard this kind of thing before and I would be willing to wager you have too. But I keep thinking about this, perhaps because I have met this child before.

A lifelong friend and his wife have recently taken in a young relative, a young girl. They took her into their home out of a highly dysfunctional situation involving drugs and neglect. My friend was telling me about the little girl’s attempts to adapt to a normal home life having come out of a home of drug abuse and neglect. My friend shared with me that after a few nights in her new home it occurred to my friend and his wife that the child was taking food from the kitchen and hiding it in her bedroom.

The reason for this is obvious enough. All she knew was want and a terrifying uncertainty about one of the basic needs of life: food. Never having lived in a supportive and healthy home, the child could not conceive of the goodness of her new reality, namely, that the she would not be neglected, that she would not go to bed hungry, that she would never again have to wonder if there would be food tomorrow.

It is hard to imagine the better thing when all you have known is fear. Fear is a powerfully debilitating force and it walks hand in hand with uncertainty, with unknowing.

“We fear things in proportion to our ignorance of them,” said Livy. H.P. Lovecraft agreed: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” This is true.

The writer of Hebrews is beginning to approach the end of his amazing letter. He has one more chapter after this one and we can feel him pulling the ties together here in the second half of chapter 12. And what he wants the people of God to know—indeed, what he needs for them to understand—is that in Christ we have a better home: a better sacrifice, a better priest, a better deliverer, a better covenant, and a better understanding of the nature of God.

Let us be careful: Jesus did not come to say we have a better God! Perish the thought! The Father of Jesus is the God of the Old Testament. God has not changed. God was as compassionate and loving in Genesis as He is in Revelation and God is as awe-inspiring and wrathful in Revelation as He is in Genesis. God has not changed.

But our experience of God, and our understanding of God, and the means employed to reveal God are greater and better now that Jesus has come. We have more light, so we need not fear.

We need not hide food in the bedroom just in case our Father turns out to be evil. No, that is not how the Kingdom works and that is not who our great God is! We must understand this, so we must heed carefully the words of this amazing chapter.

We used to be driven by fear of the wrath of God.

The writer of Hebrews has been stressing the greatness of Jesus and the superiority of the saving covenant of His blood. He has been showing in numerous ways how Jesus accomplished something greater than the sacrifices of the tabernacle ever could. Jesus’ priesthood is greater. Jesus’ identity is greater. And so this means that the revelation of God we find in Christ is greater. He continues that theme in the second half of Hebrews 12 by arguing that the very way we approach Jesus is greater than what it was in the Old Testament.

18 For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest 19 and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. 20 For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”

He seems to be referencing something he knows his readers or listeners will understand, but what it is? He is, in fact, referencing the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai in Exodus 19. There, when Moses went up on the mountain, the people of God had to be warned not to approach or touch the mountain. The entire scene is shrouded in fear and trembling! Listen closely:

And the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever.” When Moses told the words of the people to the Lord, 10 the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments 11 and be ready for the third day. For on the third day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. 12 And you shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death.13 No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain.” 14 So Moses went down from the mountain to the people and consecrated the people; and they washed their garments. 15 And he said to the people, “Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman.” 16 On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. 19 And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. 20 The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. 21 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to the Lord to look and many of them perish. 22 Also let the priests who come near to the Lord consecrate themselves, lest the Lordbreak out against them.” 23 And Moses said to the Lord, “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for you yourself warned us, saying, ‘Set limits around the mountain and consecrate it.’” 24 And the Lord said to him, “Go down, and come up bringing Aaron with you. But do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the Lord, lest he break out against them.” 25 So Moses went down to the people and told them.

This was the tone of the Mosaic covenant: thunder and lightning and law and the threat of death! Now hear again the words of the writer of Hebrews about this:

18 For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest 19 and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. 20 For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”

Ah! You, the church, followers of Jesus, do not experience God in this way. You are no longer driven by fear, though holy fear, as we will see, has its rightful place. But, no, your primary relationship with God is no longer one of the threat of death and wrathful judgment and an ominous mountain that cannot even be approached!

In so many ways, Moses’ words in Exodus 19:23 summarize perfectly the nature of the old covenant:

23 And Moses said to the Lord, “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for you yourself warned us, saying, ‘Set limits around the mountain and consecrate it.’”

Then it was, “You cannot come up! You are warned! Heed the limits! Note the separation! Fear and tremble lest you die!”

The writer of Hebrews is saying, “This is no longer so since a better way has come!” The note in the Holman Christian Standard Bible rightly says, “The church does not exist on Mount Sinai with its terrifying law that commands and condemns.”[1] No, this is no longer the way of the people of God! Again, God has not changed and neither should we see the giving of the law as a bad thing! It was a good thing! It had and has its purpose! But the way we used to see God was not the full picture. We now must get used to the new reality of grace.

Church, it is no longer necessary to hide food in your bedroom! As we will now see in the next verses.

Now we are led by the beauty of God in Christ.

The writer of Hebrews is now ready to make his great contrast!

22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

Ah! So it is a contrast between two mountains: Sinai with its thunder and Zion with its glory, Sinai with its distance and Zion with its invitation, Sinai with its judgment and Zion with its mercy, Sinai with its warning and Zion with its beauty! And, indeed, Zion is beautiful! It is “the city of the living God” in which we see “innumerable angels in festal gathering.” What a picture! One New Testament scholar has described the “innumerable angels in festal gathering” of verse 22 as “the angelic hosts thronging with glad worship round the living God.”[2]

And therein we see “the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven!” The people of God are in Zion! It is home to the children of God! And we are said to have “come to Mount Zion!” This is what Christ has won for us: entry to the Kingdom, an open door to glory!

And there, tucked in the midst of this description, a phrase that surely should cause us to stop and marvel: “But you have come…to God!” Oh my! Do you remember Exodus 19 and its language of distance? At Sinai we were told, “Do not come near!” At Zion we are told, “Come near!”

How can this be? Because of verse 24: “But you have come…to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant.” What is it that stands between Sinai and Zion? What is it that allows us to walk from the mount of law to the mount of mercy? It is Jesus and specifically “the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”

In Genesis 4:10, the Lord says this to Cain after he slew his brother: “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” And what did Abel’s blood say to God? Murder! Treachery! Sin! Evil! Judgment!

Such was the blood that was shed at the beginning! But Jesus’ blood cries out something very different: Mercy! Grace! Hope! Forgiveness! Joy! Peace! Resurrection! Life! Life! Life!

Here is what we see at Zion! How indescribably beautiful! How marvelous! How our hearts skip a beat to hear this!

“What is Sinai to heaven,” asked John Chrysostom?[3] Indeed! What is Sinai to heaven?

We used to be driven by fear. Now we are led by beauty…the beauty of the King and the beauty of the Kingdom!

We still tremble, but now with reverence and awe.

And then the writer of Hebrews, fully aware of human nature, makes an important point: it is not that we no longer tremble before our great God. It is rather that now we tremble with reverence and awe. Listen:

25 See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven.

So Zion is no easy-breezy universalism in which all are saved and God is reduced to what C.S. Lewis once referred to as “a benevolently senile old Grandfather.” Oh no! Do not think that! Let us be clear: the God of Zion is the God of Sinai, it is simply that now we understand Him better because of Jesus. No, there is trembling at Zion. First with the recognition that if we “refuse him who is speaking” we will fall under His wrath. To reject the Kingdom is to enter the terrifying judgment of God! But we tremble also because of the immeasurable power of God. Watch:

26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain.

Do you see? The God who shook Sinai is still the God who shakes what He wills in power. But now we understand that God will one day shake not merely a lone mountain and the ground around it but actually the heavens and the earth! There will come a time when Mount Sinai is no more, but there will never come a time when Zion, the Kingdom of God, is no more! There will one day be a cosmic shaking! “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Revelation 21:1). But Zion, the city of God, the new Jerusalem, Heaven, the Kingdom, will stand forever, “that the things that cannot be shaken may remain.”

What then are we to do? Does this lead us to be flippant with God? Casual with God? Indifferent toward God? If so, we have misunderstood this amazing book. No, Hebrews 12 ends with what we should do.

28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire.

Be grateful.

Offer worship.

Tremble with reverence and awe.

I say tremble because the reverence and awe is rooted in the fact that “our God is a consuming fire.” But the nature of the trembling has changed. We do not tremble in fear that God might destroy us. We tremble with awe and joy because the God of Sinai has shown Himself to be Jesus! How amazing! We tremble with gratitude because of the salvation He has won for us!

Philip Hughes observed of these closing verses that “the greater the privilege the greater too is the responsibility.” He continues: “Those who, since the advent of Christ, are blessed with the clear light of God’s day of grace are for that very reason all the more solemnly accountable for their use or neglect of this blessing.”[4] Yes! That is so! And may it be in our lives!

H.A. Ironside appealed to these poetic words in his consideration of our text.

And now we draw near to the throne of grace,

            For His blood and the Priest are there;

And we joyfully seek God’s holy face,

            With our censer of praise and prayer.

The burning mount and the mystic veil,

            With our terrors and guilt, are gone;

Our conscience has peace that can never fail,

            ‘Tis the Lamb on high on the throne.[5]

Let the church say “Amen!” Let the church draw near her Savior King with reverence and awe and worship! And let the church call the nations to Zion.

 

[1] Holman Bible Editorial Staff, Holman Bible Editorial Staff. HCSB Study Bible (Kindle Locations 149278-149279). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] Philip Edgcumbe Hughes. A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), p.547.

[3] Erik M. Heen and Philip D.W. Krey, eds. Hebrews. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Gen. Ed. Thomas C. Oden. New Testament X (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), p.222.

[4] Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, p.542.

[5] H.A. Ironside. Studies in the Epistles to The Hebrews and The Epistle to Titus. (New York, NY: Loizeaux Brothers, Inc., 1958), p.165.

2 thoughts on “Hebrews 12:18-29

  1. Oh, WOW!!!!!!!!!!!, shiver me timbers mate! I was hanging tough until you broke out of the printed text here and quoted a wee bit of Calvin Miller. Behold, he has been gone a full decade and me lost about that much somehow? August 19, 2012. Thanks for opening up the Central U……….what an amazing development for whosoever will come, may come and learn. Go CBCNLR team. Quoting St. Teresa of Avila unhinged me utterly and almost jumped from my desk chair through me ceiling @ 5:00 am. The bump on me head will heal but the crack in the plaster must remain and abide. Some of us get Bapticostal from time to time. Awe!!!!!!! :-) God Bless Us Every One

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