RPM, Volume 11, Number 4, January 25 to January 31 2009

Hebrews 12:18-29

A Sermon

By Scott Lindsay

We are continuing this morning with our study of the Letter to the Hebrews, picking up at verse 18 of chapter 12 and working through to verse 29 of the same chapter. I do not know about you, but I have personally found these words in Hebrews to be very challenging and helpful as we have considered just some of the many practical implications of these verses - implications for how we pray, implications for how we think about Christ, implications for how we see the church, for how we understand what our coming together is all about, implications for how we deal with an often disappointing present, for how we ought to think about God's permitting difficult things to be a part of our daily experiences. All sorts of practical applications have flown from the verses we have seen thus far.

This morning we want to continue in this same vein as the writer of Hebrews takes us a little further along this path of working out some of the many significances that flow from all that he has been saying about the Lord Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest. Before we look any further at that, however, let us pray:

Father in Heaven, please hear us now as we ask you to inhabit this moment and show us good things in your word that we might be encouraged, challenged and rebuked by them, in order that we would become more like your Son, and learn to love you more deeply, with a faithful obedience that illustrates and demonstrates the genuineness of that love. We ask these things in Jesus' name, Amen.
Our text this morning is Hebrews 12:18-29. Let us read:
For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, "If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned." Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, "I tremble with fear." 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, 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, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. 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. 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." 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. 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, for our God is a consuming fire.
Now, while it may not appear so at first glance, what is being said here is really not all that complex or difficult, in my view. Accordingly, our approach will be fairly straightforward. Firstly, we will look at some of the details of the passage in order to clarify in our minds what the words and images here are all about. Then I want to spend just a few minutes thinking about why these things would have been helpful for God's people back when this letter was first written, as well as for God's people today.

Firstly, then, let us take a quick look at what the words and images here are all about. Simply put, what we have here is a contrast/comparison between two "mountains" - one that has figured prominently in the biblical plotline thus far, and another one that will figure prominently in the plotline at some point in the future - but which is still pertinent and helpful in the present.

Verses 18-21 are describing one mountain. Verses 22-24 are describing the other one. Then verses 25-29 are working out what understanding the difference between these two mountains ought to mean for God's people.

Now, the first "mountain" described here, while not named specifically, is without a doubt Mount Sinai with which you are all quite familiar, I am certain. However, on the extremely remote, outside chance that some of you are not, let me read a little section from the Book of Exodus, to refresh your memory:

Exodus 19:1-6 On the third new moon after the people of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They set out from Rephidim and came into the wilderness of Sinai, and they encamped in the wilderness. There Israel encamped before the mountain, while Moses went up to God. The LORD called to him out of the mountain, saying, "Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel..... the LORD said to Moses, "Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments 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. 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. 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." So Moses went down from the mountain to the people and consecrated the people; and they washed their garments.... 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. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. 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. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder.
Following all of this, a few other things happen and then Moses delivers the ten commandments to the people of God and then, as soon as he is finished with that, right on the heels of the last commandment, this is what Exodus 20 records for us:
Exodus 20:18-19 Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, "You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die."
Now, keeping those verses in mind, fast forward many years to these verses in Hebrews 12:18-21:
For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, "If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned." Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, "I tremble with fear."
Clearly, even though he does not mention the words "Mount Sinai," this is what the writer of Hebrews was talking about. What is that scene about? What is that imagery all about? As one writer puts it, it is all about the "unapproachable-ness" of God in the Old Testament. God, in the days of the Exodus, was awesome - to be sure - but it was a terrible awesomeness - elicited by the sins of his people and by his un-compromising holiness. One writer talks about it like this:
....In the OT Sinai is, of course, a good thing - the place of the giving of the law. But the preacher [that is this author's way of referring to the writer of Hebrews] employs Sinai as a negative sign, a symbol of everything that goes awry in religion when it is severed from the high-priestly ministry of Christ. What is wrong with Sinai? It is a place of fear. Human beings come to Sinai as perpetually unclean sinners, and therefore the holiness of God at Sinai is a holy terror. To touch Sinai is fatal, and any animal that ventures out onto this holy ground is destroyed. Sinai is filled with sights and sounds that inject horror into the heart. Even though a fire blazes there, it is still a place of gloom and darkness. Streaks of jagged lightning split the sky, thunder rumbles, and a trumpet blows so loudly it scares the wits out of people.... (Long)
That is the one mountain. The other mountain, that actually IS named, is Mount Zion, which here stands for heaven - the "heavenly Jerusalem." It is a place, even a real place, but also one that we have not yet seen, and which lies somewhere in the future for all of God's people. The words used to describe this mountain are very different, and evoke a very different sort of feeling and response. Rather than imagery that is dark and terrifying, the scene at this other "mountain" is celebratory, even triumphant. This is a city where the living God himself resides. This is a city with countless angels in "festal" gathering which, as Hughes says, is referring to "the angelic hosts thronging with glad worship around the living God". In short, it is angels having a right, raucous celebration with God as the focus of attention.

Even further, it is a city filled with all those who are among "the firstborn" by virtue of their being IN Christ who is THE firstborn, resurrected from the dead. These same persons are "the righteous" in verse 23 who have been "made perfect" - i.e., in whom God's perfecting and sanctifying work has been brought to completion. To be sure, there is a Judge in this mountain/city, which might on its own evoke some sense of foreboding. But there is no need for the people in this city to fear this Judge because there is also present a mediator - Jesus Christ - whose shed blood - which cries out for grace and mercy - counters and answers the cries of Abel's shed blood back at the very beginning which was a cry of injustice.

In short, this mountain - Mount Zion - is quite a contrast to Mount Sinai. The atmosphere evoked by the language here is very different. This is not a place of terror and foreboding. This is not a place that is unapproachable, that strikes fear in the hearts of those that draw near. This is a place where there is joy and satisfaction. This is a place full of life, with angels celebrating, with people who have been perfected in glory, a place where justice and mercy meet and are fully satisfied.

At this point, a legitimate question to ask is why the writer is taking the time to make this comparison and draw this contrast between these two "mountains" as he has. Do you see what I am saying? What purpose is all this serving?

The answer is seen when we remember what he has just been talking about prior to this section. If you will remember, he has just finished "coaching" them and encouraging them to keep going in this marathon called the Christian life. Specifically, he has urged them to "lift their drooping hands" and to "strengthen their weak knees." The thing he seems to have in mind here, the means by which he wants them to do that is through their giving attention to and caring for the community of faith - by striving after peace, by pursuing holiness, and by looking out for one another and being un-willing to leave bitterness and rebellion as un-addressed matters within the community. The net effect of their giving attention to those things will be that they are strengthened and encouraged.

So, as part of that and as an example of the sort of dangers there are to look out for within the Christian community, the writer drew their attention to the Old Testament figure of Esau who despised things that were valuable and sacred - like his birthright - and who openly rebelled against God.

It is at this point, after he appeals to Esau as a kind of "cautionary tale" of warning for his readers that the writer seems to feel the need to follow up that warning with this image of the two contrasting mountains. His point in doing so is to underscore how much more terrible and significant his readers' own rebellion and rejection would be - even more terrible than that of Esau, with even greater consequences.

The reason why it would be so much more terrible is precisely because their experience of God, the privileges that they have, the revelation of God that they have been privy too is so categorically different, and so much fuller than that which was received by God's people of old. The God they have been introduced to is not the unapproachable, terrifying God of Mount Sinai who, because of sin, must keeps his people at a distance but is, instead, the God who through his son, Jesus Christ, has fully and finally dealt with the sin of his people and, consequently, has drawn his people near, who has torn down the curtain separating himself from his people, who has created open and free access to himself, for all of his people, for all time.

That reality and greater privilege for God's people today, that difference highlighted by these two mountains, that contrast between "a holiness which is terrifying and unapproachable and a holiness that is welcoming, cleansing and healing" - as one writer puts it - is one that leaves the writer of Hebrews with no option but to issue the strong warning of verse 25:

Hebrews 12:25-26 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. 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."
As we have seen before, greater privilege and blessing also means, when it is rejected, greater responsibility and culpability. As a result, the writer reminds his readers that a day is coming when all such rebellion and rejection will fully and finally be addressed, when a manifestation of God's terrible holiness, even greater than that seen at Sinai, will appear - a "shaking" that will include not only the earth, but also the heavens.

In other words, this will be an all-encompassing, universal "shaking" or "judgment" - and is, as I take it, a clear reference to the coming return of Jesus Christ, in judgment. When this "shaking" is through, everything will be fully and finally sorted out. As one writer puts it:

Heaven and earth alike must be ‘shaken' in such a way that everything transient, temporary, secondary and second-rate may fall away. Then that which is of the new creation, based on Jesus himself and his resurrection, will shine out more brightly. (Wright)
But the message here is not all gloom and doom. It is not only about warning and caution, although it is about that. But there is also here, along with the warning, a concluding great note of encouragement and hope.

The hope is this: That there is a time coming when the shaking will be over. When the only things left standing are those things that cannot be shaken. When there will be nothing left that sets itself against God, or that even attempts to do so, in any way, shape, or fashion. A time when all that was partial will be completed, when all that was temporary is replaced with only that which is permanent. A time when all that was broken and lost will finally have been restored.

The longer I am alive, the more I long for things to be permanent. Things get old, they wear out. We get old and we wear out. Situations change from bad to good and back to bad again. Relationships are forged - and then farewelled. You always seem to be saying goodbye to someone or something. Every time I have to do that, every time someone leaves, or something breaks, or things begin to fade away - there is this longing, this ache, this hope for a coming day when everything doesn't change. A longing for something that is lasting and permanent, when the only change is from one glory to the next.

But that day is not yet here for us. That time is not yet. It is still out there, even though we do, daily experience some of the anticipations of it in this tension in which we live - a tension between what is now, and what will one day be.

In many ways the hardships we face, the ongoing discipline of the Lord that all who are his will and must endure, in many ways all of those things are all part of this - they are all signals and signs that anticipate this coming reality. They are the early "shocks" and "tremors", if you will, on the seismograph of God's judgment, telling us that something is coming. Something big. Something that is SO big it is like nothing anyone has ever seen.

Until it gets here, we must wait. There is simply no hurrying along the purposes of God. They move with perfect speed and unwavering intention, with flawless timing, never too slow, never too fast. It is just no good trying to hurry them along.

At the same time, there is no good in giving up and walking away. The writer of Hebrews has warned us repeatedly about that, hasn't he? The consequences of that are far greater than anything we might endure here. Besides, as the disciples said to Jesus in John 6, "Where else have we to go? You alone have words of eternal life."

So, what do you do when you cannot move forward, and you cannot go back - when you cannot walk away? What do you do when the present is often unbearable, and the future is virtually un-seeable. What do you do?

You worship, that is what you do. You worship.

Right where you are. Right in the middle of it all. You give God his due. You give him what is rightly his, and his alone. Like Paul, singing away in his prison cell; doing the very thing he was created to do all along. Doing the one thing that always makes sense and which, in a strange sort of way, makes more sense in the middle of hardship than it does anywhere else. Why? Because it is in those particular places that you feel so very small, and helpless, when you feel hindered and handicapped by your sin and your humanity, when the distance and difference between you and God, between Creator and creature is never quite as clear as it is in those moments. It is in those places that you want God to be big, when you want him to be awesome, when you need God to be greater than you've ever needed him to be before.

Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord. Surrender and abandon yourself to him, completely. Let his awesome and terrible power and mercy, majesty and holiness wash over you. Because our God, the writer tells us, is the same God of the Old Testament. He is still a consuming fire. There is no going half-way with this God.

Donald Miller tells the story of a man who was interviewing Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ - a non-denominational campus ministry found in many countries, including Australia, I believe. At any rate, one day Donald Miller went to see Bill Bright and during the course of their conversation he asked him, "What does Jesus mean to you?" As Miller relates the story, at that point Dr Bright broke down and just began weeping, and was unable to respond for quite some time. As one writer said, you can always tell the people who have seen something of the awesome holiness of God - they are the ones in a fetal position, who have been rendered speechless.

Bill Bright went to be with the Lord a few years ago now. But if Bill Bright was still here, and we sat down to talk theology, I am sure we would probably disagree on some things, maybe even a lot of things.

But let me tell you something. God had a hold on that man. He was a man possessed. For Bill, God really was a consuming fire. Bill may not have gotten everything right. But he got that right. He understood what it meant to be completely sold out to the Lord Jesus Christ - amidst blessing - certainly - but amidst great difficulty as well.

Our God is a consuming fire.
He will have all of us.
Or he will have none of us.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

Subscribe to RPM

RPM subscribers receive an email notification each time a new issue is published. Notifications include the title, author, and description of each article in the issue, as well as links directly to the articles. Like RPM itself, subscriptions are free. To subscribe to RPM, please select this link.