Sermon preached on Hebrews 12:18-29 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 2/10/2019 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“Do Not Refuse Him Who Speaks”
What a treat we have here. Today’s passage gloriously describes what we’ve come into now as Christians, in comparison to what the Old Testament saints had. Sometimes we focus on all the things we spiritually have in common with those saints. But here, we have a beautiful picture of the better things we’ve come into now as Christians. John’s gospel tells us that “the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Hebrews paints a picture of that for us today. So then, we’ll see a comparison today in verses 18-24. It will compare what the saints of old came into with the law and the old covenant through Moses, with the grace and new covenant we’ve received through Jesus.
We begin then first by beholding the experience of the Old Testament saints. This is described in verses 18-21. It describes how they came to a mountain that can be touched. Based on the description, this can be no other mountain than Mt. Sinai. This Mt. Sinai could be touched in the sense that it was actual place on earth that God’s people physically came to. After God brought the people out of Egypt, he took them through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land. But just three months into their journey from Egypt, they arrived at Mt. Sinai. There, God manifested himself before the people. There, he entered into a new-to-them covenant which we call the old covenant, mediated through Moses. This included God giving all the laws and ordinances and statutes to Moses that God was requiring of the people. As we read Hebrews here, describing the Sinai experience, we see that he pulls his material from Scripture, especially Exodus 19-20 and Deuteronomy 4.
Notice the description that Hebrews chooses to reference about this Mt. Sinai experience. He references the visible phenomenon associated with God’s theophany there: it burned with fire, and there was blackness and darkness and wind.
In Deuteronomy 4:11, Moses described this saying that “the mountain burned with fire to the very heart of the heavens: darkness, cloud and thick gloom.” And so, in this theophany God decided to demonstrate his power and might in rather ominous terms. To use a Lord of the Rings analogy, this description of Sinai sounds more like Mt. Mordor than Rivendell.
Hebrews not only describes the sights but also the sounds of Mt. Sinai. Verse 19 says there was a sound of a trumpet. Surely this was not some joyful symphony orchestra brass production. The Hebrew word for “trumpet” used in Exodus is specifically the word for a shofar. Really, think more “horn” than “trumpet”. So, this sound was surely more along the lines of some deep roar. And when Exodus 19:16 describes this trumpet sounding, it says it was a very loud blast. Along with the trumpet sound, Hebrews describes the voice of words. In Deuteronomy 4:12, Moses recalls how the people heard the sound of words coming from the midst of the fire, but they saw no form of God. Not only that, but look at what verse 26 adds to this. It speaks of God’s voice shaking the earth. Surely, that is still describing the Mt. Sinai experience. For we see described in Exodus 19:18 that the mountain quaked violently. In other words, there was some powerful earthquake associated with all this theophany. Revelation repeatedly describes theophany in connection with earthquakes as well. Amazingly, Hebrews says it was the booming power of the voice of God that caused the earth to so shake! Imagine being at a rock concert when they have the volume turned up so loud that you literally feel the sound and can feel the stadium shaking from it. This sounds like something along those lines but even more powerful.
Well, in case you didn’t catch the obvious yet, this description brings out both the terror and inaccessibility of God. The irony is that the Mt. Sinai theophany was a way in which God was manifesting himself to his people. In one sense, God was giving some sort of access to his presence that the people otherwise didn’t have. Yet, in this theophany, what ultimately gets communicated is that in light of the complete holiness and omnipotence of God, in comparison to the unholy and unclean nature of man, God’s people could not approach him. And so, Sinai evoked great terror in the people, showing they couldn’t really draw near to God.
Just think of the details here that display this. Verse 18 speaks of the mountain that they came to that could be touched. But verse 20 says they weren’t allowed to touch it. Because of the theophany, it had become so holy, that they had to kill from a distance any man or even animal that went on to the mountain. Exodus 19:12 describes this, recording God telling Moses that he needed to setup some boundary around the Mountain. They were allowed to draw up near to the mountain. But they weren’t allowed to go on the mountain or even touch it. And so, they came to this mountain that could be touched, but they weren’t allowed to touch it! Why? Because the Holy God was there. They were restricted in their access to God.
Similarly, all the sights and sounds also served to terrify the people. Exodus 20:18 records this saying, “And all the people perceived the thunder and the lightning flashes and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood at a distance.” Likewise, verse 19 notes that when the people heard the voice of God, they begged that they not hear it again. Exodus goes on in 20:19 to explain that the people said this because were afraid they would if they heard God’s voice again! Growing up in southern California, I still remembering experiencing my first sizable earthquake as a child. I was afraid and continued to be afraid for a while. I still have some fear of earthquakes, and I guess I should. But, they didn’t just have an earthquake there. All this phenomenon came together at Mt. Sinai and it left the people terrified. Even their limited access to God’s presence left them in dread.
I find it fascinating that verse 21 says that it wasn’t just the people in general who were so afraid. This fear also overtook Moses. Verse 21 says that Moses also said, “I am exceedingly afraid and trembling.” Despite the relationship God had already cultivated with Moses, he too stood in awe and fear at coming to Mt. Sinai and having this theophanic experience of God. As Hebrews 10:31 told us, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Yet, despite Moses’ own fear, the Old Testament records that both the people and God demanded him to serve as mediator. So, he had to go up that terrifying mountain. And yet, by the grace of God, he was not consumed; he was not killed. Instead, God used Moses, despite his fear, to facilitate the enactment of that old covenant between God and Israel.
And so, I hope you recognize two things here. On the one hand, this whole experience at Mt. Sinai was a terrifying experience that in presenting access to God actually served to show how the people didn’t have access to God. So, in some sense, it presented a terrifying and unapproachable God to them. On the other hand, God nonetheless used this for his good redemptive purposes for his people. These terrors of law and of God that the Mt. Sinai generation experienced, pointed to them their need for Christ and the holiness and access to God that he could bring them. And so, despite the terror, and despite its limitations, what Israel experienced and received at Mt. Sinai was sufficient to instruct and build them up in faith in the promised Christ, by whom they could have full remission of sins and eternal salvation. Yet, that was through types and shadows and ordinances that foresignified Christ to come. They could look forward to the redemptive work that Christ would accomplish. But they still would need to wait patiently in faith.
And so that’s where Hebrews amazingly and wonderfully declares to us today how much more we now have since the promised Christ has already come. We have not come to that old Mt. Sinai. Rather, verses 22-24 show us to what we have already come. We have a joy and an ability to approach God that has already been substantively secured for us by the work of Jesus. We enjoy this access to God now, spiritually, by the Holy Spirit and in our union with the ascended Lord Jesus. Yet, as this passage goes on to tell us, there is still a final installment of the kingdom that we await. Ours is still the pilgrim life. Then, in the new creation, what we have already come to know will be able to be “touched”. But for now, we rejoice at all that we have already come into in our faith in Jesus. Let us then survey what it says here that we’ve come to.
First, it says that we’ve come to Mount Zion. Remember, that in the Old Testament, when the Davidic kingdom was finally established in the Promised Land, the seat of both government and religion ended up resting on Mt. Zion. That was the name of the mountain on which Jerusalem was formed and where the Ark of the covenant was brought. It was the place of the of the great king and the tabernacle of the Lord. There are so many Old Testament passages that speak of Mount Zion with exalted language, like Psalm 78 that describes God choosing and loving Mount Zion. We especially see in the Old Testament so many prophecies that speak of the coming of the Messianic kingdom in terms of establishing Zion. Too many people have mistakenly thought that such prophecies refer to an earthly millennial kingdom before the return of Christ. But we are reminded here that that the Mt. Zion God’s people are looking forward to is actually something we already have now. That’s because it’s currently in heaven and will come down out of heaven only in the new creation after Christ’s return. So, as we see here that we have already come to this heavenly Mt. Zion, we should be encouraged by the contrasting imagery. By this passage comparing an earthly Mt. Sinai with a heavenly Mt. Zion, we see that Christians now have already in some sense come to realize our pilgrim hope. In other words, when Israel was at Mt. Sinai, they were only at the beginning of a long wilderness journey to the Promised Land. Sinai therefore was the start of the journey, Zion was the eventual end. So, Hebrews tells us that in virtue of what we have in Christ, we have already come to the end. If we hold to Christ in faith, we have already arrived at our destination of Zion.
The next thing Hebrews says we’ve come to is the city of the living God, namely the heavenly Jerusalem. Again, we are told here that our hope is not to be in some future earthly Jerusalem in this age. Rather, our hope is the heavenly Jerusalem that we have already arrived in. To clarify, next chapter, in Hebrews 13:14, it will say that we are seeking the city which is to come. That reminds us that when this passage says we have already come to this heavenly city, it only means that in a certain sense. We find clarification on this in the book of Revelation which speaks of how in the age to come the New Jerusalem will come down out of heaven and set itself up on a new earth. That means that this Jerusalem is in heaven right now; it’s where Jesus is, ascended at the right hand of God. This is what we’ve been seeing earlier in the book of Hebrews; that Jesus is up in the true heavenly tabernacle in the presence of God. In our union with Christ and by his Spirit we have access right now to God in this heavenly Jerusalem. And so, as we read that we have arrived here now in his heavenly city of God, we should be encouraged. Not only had those of old at Mt Sinai not yet arrived to even the earthly Jerusalem, even when they did, it was still just an earthly city. But as we’ve seen in Hebrews, the saints of old realized that God was ultimately planning for them to have this greater, heavenly city. So, at best, the saints of the old covenant got the type and shadow of the true Jerusalem. But now in the new covenant, we have come into the heavenly and true Jerusalem. There God dwells and, even now, we have access to boldly draw near to him, per Hebrews 4:16.
The third thing that we’ve come to, is an innumerable company of angels, verse 22. Now let me clarify two things here. One, Sinai had a host of angels, according to Deuteronomy 33:2. Two, there’s an interpretation issue here that explains that Hebrews is not just saying that we come to just another host of angels; but that we have come to a host of celebrating and joyous angels. You see, the next verse, verse 23, starts out with “the general assembly”. That would be more literally translated as something like “festive gathering” and arguably the punctuation should connect it with the angels and not the church which is referenced after that. Some English versions handle the text that way. Remember that both verse numbers and punctuation was added much later from when the Bible was first recorded, and they don’t always get the sense of the original right. And so what Hebrews seems to be doing is comparing the angels at Sinai with the angels now that we come to as we to come to heavenly Mt. Zion and Jerusalem in Christ. We don’t come to angels alongside a terrifying God who looks like a general with his army of angels poised to deliver his wrath at any moment. Rather, we come into this place where there are countless angels in joyful celebration! Remember, how Jesus taught that there is joy in the presence of the angels when sinners repent. That’s what we’ve come into – a big celebration by angels, surely praising God for his work of redemption of sinners. We come to them and join with them in the party!
The fourth thing that we’ve come to is the church of the firstborns who are registered in heaven. You’ll notice I said “firstborns” not “firstborn” because in the Greek this is plural; that mean’s it’s a reference to a bunch of people who are now firstborns. This is clearly a reference to all the elect, whose names are written in the Book of Life. We are firstborns as we’ve come to share in the birthright and inheritance of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. That which Esau despised, we have by faith in Jesus Christ. And thinking of the reference here to having our names registered in heaven, remember Jesus told his disciples that is something to rejoice about (Luke 10:20)!
The fifth thing that we’ve come to is God as the Judge of All, verse 23. If in Mt. Sinai and elsewhere in Scripture the picture of God as Judge invokes concern and fear, that doesn’t seem to be the tone here. In context, this must be the Judge that sits in approval not condemnation, for we have been made holy in Christ, and our sins purged away. This is the judge who stands to welcome us in arriving to Mt. Zion and to declare “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Also, by saying that we have come to God, we are again shown the contrast with Mt. Sinai. Sinai expressed the limitation in access to God. It was Moses who went up the mountain and came to God, while the rest had to keep their distance at the threat of death. Now, we all have come to this God and are welcomed and commended.
The sixth thing that we’ve come to us is to the spirits of just men made perfect. This likely refers to those saints who have already died and gone in their spirits to be with the Lord. They are now there perfected with the Lord in his presence. And so earlier in the verse it can describe how all God’s people are assembled with the angels in this heavenly sanctuary. But here it seems to especially draw our attention then to those victorious saints; who have endured in the faith until their deaths and now are with Christ. Seeing them should encourage us to press on ourselves unto glory. And hearing of them declared just and perfect stands in wonderful contrast to Mt. Sinai where the law was given, which as Hebrews said in 7:19, the law made nothing perfect.
The seventh thing that we’ve come to us to Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant. Hebrews has been telling us so much about this, but maybe the point to mention here is how encouraging and better it is for us to have Jesus as our covenant mediator instead of Moses. Interestingly, we were told here of Moses’s great fear at the thought of God’s possible wrath upon him – yet he didn’t end up experiencing that wrath. Yet, Jesus too feared greatly and trembled at the wrath of God – remember the Garden of Gethsemane. Sinless Jesus didn’t have to fear because of his own sin, but as a so much better mediator, he would bear the sin of all his people. And such fear of God’s wrath became realized for Jesus at the cross when he experienced hell there in our place. Yet, that is why this should encourage us. He has bore that wrath, so we no longer need to fear God’s eternal judgment.
The last thing that we’ve come to: the blood of sprinkling which speaks better things than Abel’s. This refers to Jesus’ blood. That it is “sprinkled blood” tells us that it is atoning blood. Our guilt has been covered by Jesus being an offering for sin. As 10:22 said, our hearts have been sprinkled from an evil conscience, and as 1:3 said, Christ has made purification for sins. In remembering Abel’s blood, this recalls Genesis 4:10 which said that Abel’s blood was crying out from the ground against his brother Cain who murdered him. Abel’s blood spoke in the sense of condemnation, and by extension, serves to rightly condemn all sinners. Yet, in contrast, Jesus’s blood speaks words of atonement, and comfort, and peace. To us, Jesus blood says, “I do not condemn you” and “your sins are forgiven.”
In conclusion, brethren, I hope we see what a wonderful thing we come into by faith in Jesus Christ. What we possess now in faith, we will possess even more fully at the day of Christ. Let us then heed the exhortation that this passage brings us. In light of all this, we are commanded in verse 25, “Do not refuse him who is speaking.” If we hold fast to Jesus in faith, we have all that we’ve talked about today. Ours is and will be joyous communion and worship with the Almighty God. For those today who have known that faith, be strengthened and encouraged in your hope again today. For those who have not yet put their faith in Christ, I urge you to do so today. Come into these amazing things today and into eternity. Amen.
Copyright © 2019 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.