HEBREWS: TWO MOUNTAINS, ONE GOD

HEBREWS 12:18—29

The best introduction to this group of verses is Hebrews 12:14—

without holiness no one will see the Lord.

So keep that verse in the back of your mind because it’s going to be very important before the end of this message.

The readers of this letter, both past and present readers, needed to understand the difference between the days of the Old Covenant and those of the New Covenant. Christians—believers under the New Covenant—are different from the Israelites who received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. Believers are different and the days are different. We like to make comparisons between the way God dealt with Israel and the way He deals with the Church, but sometimes those comparisons just don’t work. These are different days in which we find ourselves living. These are days of grace and God is dealing with His people differently because of that. This section, then, deals with those contrasts, and those contrasts are stark. Today, the believer may freely and confidently approach God through Jesus Christ. Under the Old Covenant, though, God was not all that approachable; He was holy and He was remote from His people. What happened at Mount Sinai serves to graphically illustrate this night and day difference.

1. Not Mount Sinai, 12:18—21

You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”

Interestingly, the word “mountain” is not in the Greek manuscripts. We know that the writer has in his mind Mount Sinai because of the context, and Mount Sinai was “a mountain that can be touched,” that is, it is a material mountain. But the real focus is not the location of the event, but on the appearance of God. When God gave the Law, His appearance was accompanied by all kinds of atmospheric disturbances—volcanic fire and smoke, clouds, darkness and gloom, wind and lightening.

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” (Exodus 20:18—20)

Why did God appear that way to the Israelites? They obviously knew that what they were witnessing were not mere manifestations nature, but rather manifestations of the supernatural. God simply used the most terrifying thing to man at that time—bad weather, dangerous, uncontrollable weather phenomena—to illustrate His sovereign power and His holiness. By striking fear into the hearts of His people this way, God was trying to teach them that they needed saving grace.

But an interesting thing happened when God spoke: the people heard His voice but didn’t understand what He was saying. They asked Moses to listen to God’s voice and then tell them what God said. In other words, the people were willing to listen and obey, but they were too afraid to be God’s presence.

Go near and listen to all that the LORD our God says. Then tell us whatever the LORD our God tells you. We will listen and obey.” The LORD heard you when you spoke to me and the LORD said to me, “I have heard what this people said to you. Everything they said was good. (Deuteronomy 5:27—28)

The giving of the Law was not a good experience for the Israelites. They stood in awe in God’s presence, they stood in fear in God’s presence, but most of all they stood condemned in God’s presence. That’s why they wanted Moses to deal with God in their stead. Not even an animal could approach the mountain, so terrible was the presence of God.

So, what we learn from this is that the awful appearance of God at Mount Sinai demonstrated both His infinite holiness and the awful sinfulness of His people.

I feared the anger and wrath of the LORD, for he was angry enough with you to destroy you. (Deuteronomy 9:19)

2. But Mount Zion, 12:22—29

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly… (verse 22)

This a powerful paragraph that, among other things, teaches that material things—the things that can be shaken—won’t last forever. God’s kingdom, though, is unshakable and it will last forever. This contrast should move us to live right. The writer has just made it clear that God will not tolerate sin and wrongdoing. He’s going to make the point that He will eventually bring all things—material things—to an end. So, if you know this is the case, then you should shape up and serve Him faithfully.

The first thing we notice when we compare Mount Zion (the New Covenant) with Mount Sinai (the Old Covenant) is the brilliant contrast. Mount Sinai: a literal place, the place of doom, despair, and dread; Mount Zion: a spiritual place, the place of light, life, and joy.

The verb “have come” suggests the readers of this letter have already arrived at a permanent place—the unshakable place. That further suggests that the conditions of the Old Covenant, including the awful manifestation of God through nature, have all ended and that the conditions of the New Covenant are now in play. In other words, the things that can be shaken—like mountains, even Mount Sinai—will cease to exist. Mount Zion, though, God’s kingdom, is everlasting.

The little word “but” at the beginning of verse 22 tells the readers that unlike the Israelites who had an awful, frightful experience in God’s presence, Christians will never have that experience. The Israelites saw a side of God that, thanks to the grace and mercy of the Cross, Christians will never see. Christians have come to the permanent kingdom of God of which Mount Sinai was merely a signpost. The Law was given at Mount Sinai, but here in God’s kingdom it is fulfilled. God was the Lawgiver at Mount Sinai, here God is the Administrator of the Law. And the only way for us to enter into God’s holy presence is by way of holiness. Remember, we were told that “without holiness” nobody can see God. Holiness, you will recall, is separation from the world. So, if you’re not living a separated life, you can’t see God. Why is this separation essential? It is because God’s kingdom is NOT of this world, therefore the things of this world can’t be a part of it. So, we may live in the world, but we can’t be a part of the world.

To this kingdom we have come…

to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (verse 24)

Just as Mount Sinai is being compared to the spiritual Mount Zion, so the atoning blood of Jesus is now being compared to the blood of Abel. Abel’s was the blood of a martyr, Jesus’ blood is the blood of the Savior. Abel’s blood cried out for vengeance, the blood of Jesus calls for pardon. Abel, and all the martyrs for that matter, deserve to be remembered and honored for their testimony of faith. But Jesus should be worshiped as our Savior and Redeemer.

Now, even though Christians and the ancient Israelites have different experiences in God’s presence, He remains the same God; His nature and character never changing. That’s the warning of verse 25:

See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven?

All those who refused to hear God speak at Mount Sinai were judged harshly by God. Today, as the Son of God speaks His precious word of grace from Heaven, He, like His Father before Him, deserves to be heard. To ignore Christ’s Word or to turn from it, is to invite disaster.

Now, just what is that disaster? It’s the subject of verse 26:

At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.”

The writer is quoting from the Old Testament minor prophet Haggai. He predicted a day in the future when God would unleash His judgment upon the earth:

This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land.’ (Haggai 2:6)

Why will all this shaking take place? Because God’s unshakable kingdom is approaching, and as it gets closer and closer, all the shakeable things on earth—the material world around us—must give way and make room for the arrival of God’s kingdom.

That’s why a believer cannot afford to put his trust in the systems and structures of this temporary world. Elsewhere in Scripture, we are told that even now this world is passing away, though we may not notice it. And if you are depending on the things of this world, you just might find yourself sucked into it’s vortex when it slips away at the arrival of God’s kingdom. Believers are to look up, for that is where their future lies. And that is essentially the message of Hebrews. Reality for the Christian is not what they experience here on earth. Our reality lies in the world of the spirit. That is why holiness must be pursued; we must separate ourselves from this world as much as we are able to while still living and working in it.

There is a day coming when the shaking destroy the things of this world, leaving only the unshakable things.

The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. (verse 27)

What are those unshakable things? God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Church, holiness, love—all those things are unshakable and all those things are eternal. And those who have by faith acquired them and been placed into God’s kingdom will never be shaken.

Verse 28 urges us to worship God “acceptably with reverence and awe.” In other words, Christians, as they seek to serve God, as they pray and worship, must do so His way. We are not permitted to approach God by any other. We can’t make up our rules. That’s what the ancient Israelites did, and they failed badly. We must strive to hear God’s Word and to never slight or neglect it.

…for our “God is a consuming fire.” (verse 29)

The chapter closes with one of the most powerful verses in the New Testament, which actually comes from Deuteronomy 4:24. While acknowledging how differently our day is from the days of the Old Covenant, God is still the same “consuming fire” He was on Mount Sinai. And God will either consume the sin in us or us in our sin. We make God’s choice for Him.

We are living in what historians refer to as “post-Christian” America. The values that made this country great are being challenged and the institutions that built this country are collapsing and decaying before our eyes. It can be discouraging to look around at how things have changed for the worse. But at the same time, believers need to remember that regardless of the state of our country and of our world, God is still on the throne. Nobody and nothing can dethrone the Almighty. And what does God think about those who think they are in control this world?

The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. (Psalm 2:4)

When the history of planet Earth is written, our God, who is a consuming fire, will write the final sentence because it’s His story.

(c)  2012 WitzEnd

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