Hebrews 12:14-29 Sermon. Audio here. Text below.
Mountains are often thought of as spiritual. A mountaintop experience is a spiritual experience. People say they often feel closer to God or closer to spiritual things when they’re on a mountain.
And the bible begins in Eden which is described in Ezekiel 28 as “the holy mountain of God.” Genesis 2 says that rivers flowed out of this mountain garden and down to the rest of the world. So humanity began on high. And the fall, was literally a descent down the mountain, away from God’s presence.
If anyone were to get back into God’s presence, not only would they have to get past the guardian cherubim, these angelic bouncers with their flaming swords barring the entrance. They would have to ascend the hill of the LORD (Psalm 24). And that’s just commonly the way the bible speaks.
The bible speaks of Jesus having descended from the heights. And as He lived among us He lived the perfect life. The life of other-centred love and sacrifice that you and I should live but don’t – Jesus did it. And then He died the perfect death as our sacrifice for sins. And then, when He arose, He ascended back into the Most Holy Place – heaven itself – and He went there as our perfect Priest. We have a Friend in very high places.
That’s the argument Hebrews has been making for the last 12 chapters. Jesus has come and lived our life for us. He’s entered into the depths of our suffering and struggle and He’s lived the faithful life we never could. But He did it FOR US.
And then He died the perfect sacrificial death on the cross. And He did it FOR US. You and I deserve to die in the depths because of our filth and uncleanness. But His godforsaken death in the depths is counted before God FOR US.
And then He has ascended as the perfect Priest into heaven FOR US. We don’t have the right to be in the holy presence of God, but He is there on our behalf. He represents us in the highest place imaginable.
If we trust Jesus then we get joined to Jesus. And His life is our life, His death is our death, His ascension to God is our ascension to God.
And after 12 chapters of this kind of argument, the writer says in this section: “Don’t you know where you are? Do you have any idea where Christ has brought you?”
You are on the mountaintop. You have reached the summit.
These verses are here to wake us up to our mountaintop experience with God. And once we realize where we are – where Christ has brought us – then this passage will tell us how to move out into the world from these height.
That’s how we’ll study this chapter. We’ll begin on the mountaintop. We’ll appreciate where we are – secure on the high ground. And then we’ll consider how we’re meant to walk out into the world
But first the mountaintop experience.
The centre of this passage is a comparison between mount Sinai and mount Zion. In verses 18-21 we read about Sinai.
[SLIDE – Sinai]
That’s where the Israelites received the commandments and the tabernacle instructions and all the old covenant law.
[SLIDE – Old Covenant, Law]
When you think Sinai, think old covenant, think law. And the writer says, v18, “You have not come [to this mountain – mount Sinai]
1) a mountain that can be touched and
2) that is burning with fire;
3) to darkness,
4) gloom and
6) 19 to a trumpet blast or
7) to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, 20 because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.” 21 The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”
Here are seven things about Sinai. It was tangible – there was a literal mountain before their eyes and technically they could bend down and touch the soil. But of course in another sense they couldn’t touch it because they were terrified of the fire, the darkness, the gloom, the storm, the trumpet and the unbearable voice. Mount Sinai is a great physical illustration of the whole old covenant. It’s visible and tangible, you can see it, hear it, taste it, touch it, smell it. But in another sense, it’s completely forbidding and foreboding and condemning. All those old testament laws and rituals and practices – in one sense they are very hands on. In another sense they all scream “keep out!”
And the people of the old covenant knew that. They knew that the old covenant was this temporary and condemning thing. So back in Deuteronomy 18 Moses is preaching to the Israelites about what the law means. And here he prophesies about the coming of Christ. He says:
15 The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to Him. 16 For this is what you asked of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, “Let us not hear the voice of the LORD our God nor see this great fire any more, or we will die.” 17 The LORD said to me: “What they say is good. 18 I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in His mouth, and He will tell them everything I command him. 19 If anyone does not listen to my words that the Prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account.
So here is the answer to the fearfulness of the old covenant. Moses says a Prophet will arise as a Mediator between God and the people. He will speak to the people – He will be the go-between. And when this Prophet – Jesus – comes He will bring God to the people in a way that won’t kill them, but will bring them life.
And that’s what the new covenant is. The new covenant is a fulfillment of the old covenant in which all that is promised by the old covenant but never actualized is brought to life.
And so because Jesus has come as the great Mediator our mountaintop experience of God is not a Sinai experience of fire and storm and death. Our experience is a Zion experience.
[SLIDE – Mount Zion]
So read with me from Hebrews 12:22
22 But you have come to:
1) Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.
2) You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly,
3) 23 to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.
4) You have come to God, the judge of all men,
5) to the spirits of righteous men made perfect,
6) 24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and
7) to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
Now mount Zion was the mountain on which Jerusalem was built, the city of the Great King. Here is a mountain that throughout the bible is associated with heaven itself. And indeed when the bible speaks of Zion it’s hard to tell whether it’s referring to the earthly Jerusalem or to, v22, the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. Zion is so often spoken of in those heavenly ways. So when you think Zion, think new covenant, think promise and gospel and think heaven.
[SLIDE – New Covenant, Heaven]
That is where you have come. Listen up Christian, you are not like the Israelites at the foot of mount Sinai. You are not quaking in your boots at God’s voice. You do not have an impossible climb ahead of you into God’s presence. This presence of the LORD is not a condemning, killing presence. God is not thundering law into your ears “Thou Shalt, Thou Shalt not!” That is NOT where you are.
You are on top of the mountain of the LORD. There’s no more climbing to do, you are already there. And it’s a joyful assembly. God’s presence is a life giving presence. Just look around you. There are seven things about Zion to match the seven things said about Sinai.
We have come to a city. A place of strength and security and prosperity. You’re in God’s city.
We have come to the joyful assembly of the angels. The angels were present at the giving of the law, but that wasn’t a joyful assembly. Heaven is a joyful assembly where angels and humans unite in joyfully praising God.
We have come to the church of Jesus, who is called the Firstborn (Rom 8:29; Col 1:15,18; Heb 1:6; Rev 1:5). And you really belong. There won’t be some snooty waiter in heaven saying “Is your name on the list sir?” If you trust Jesus you can say “I truly belong, my name is on the list.”
We have come to God, the judge of all the world. What a remarkable thing! We have shown up in the Judge’s quarters, but we’ve been invited there as friends.
We have come to the spirits of righteous men made perfect. Every believer who has ever lived is on the mountaintop with us. Right now we are joined by the saints from every age. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses as v1 says. Surrounded by loved ones who are now with Jesus. In a very real sense, those who have died trusting Jesus, we are in the same place as them right now. It’s not tangible at the moment (not like Sinai was tangible). But it’s true. Because we have come to Jesus we have also come to all His people from every age.
We have come to Jesus, the Mediator of a new covenant. Here is the Prophet like Moses who makes the presence of God life-giving for us. On earth Jesus said “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:28) We have come to Jesus.
And we have come to the sprinkled blood of Jesus that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. Abel was the first human to have his blood shed. Back in Genesis 4 Cain, his brother, killed him. And the LORD said to Cain, “Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” (Gen 4:10). In the bible: blood speaks. It cries out. When it is shed unjustly, the blood cries out for justice. And just think how much blood has been shed since Abel’s – crying out to God for justice.
Well on the cross, Jesus stepped forward to take the just punishment for all our sins. And when His blood was shed as our innocent Sacrifice, His blood cries out mercy. It cries out to God “Forgive.” We have come to Christ’s shed blood that speaks in our defence and covers over all of our sins.
What sins do you feel guilty for? Friends and family may call out to condemn you. Your conscience calls out to condemn you. The devil calls out to condemn you. But Jesus’ blood speaks a better word. And it’s the blood of Jesus that God listens to. It’s the blood of Jesus purifying you from every sin – that’s what counts.
And that’s where we’ve come. We’ve come to Zion.
That’s the high position we occupy. If we belong to Jesus, we walk into our week from that vantage point. But you know what? It’s a real struggle to believe we are on top of Zion.
[SLIDE – Sinai or Zion]
In many ways it’s easier to believe we’re at the foot of Sinai than to be on top of Zion. And so in verse 25 the writer says take this Zion reality VERY seriously. Read with me verse 25:
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?
I’ve been very struck by this verse this week. Because it’s not what we ordinarily expect. We’ve seen this comparison between Sinai and Zion and the conclusion is NOT “Hey, let’s all just chill out. We’re not Sinai people, we’re Zion people, it’s a joyful assembly, it’s a party, it’s new covenant, it’s grace, it’s not law. I’m done with all that listening to God with reverence and awe.”
But no, these verses say “Absolutely not.” The point of this comparison between Sinai and Zion is to say Zion people should listen to God all the more closely. Verse 25: Do not refuse Him who speaks.
The God of Zion is still the same God as the God of Sinai. It’s not like we have a different God.
That’s the point of verses 28 and 29. Look halfway through v28:
let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, 29 for our “God is a consuming fire.”
That little quotation – “God is a consuming fire” is from Deuteronomy chapter 4 right at the point where Moses is recounting the events of mount Sinai. And he says “Our God is a consuming fire, a Jealous God.”
[SLIDE – Consuming fire]
And Hebrews repeats the quotation, because He is still a consuming fire and a Jealous God. I’m using the word Jealous in a good sense. He is an ardent Lover who will not tolerate rivals in His relationship with His people. He burns for His people with a rightly Jealous Love. And the difference between Sinai and Zion is not that now He has doused the flames.
The difference is – we used to be on the outside of that consuming fire. Now through Jesus, we are brought INTO His blazing passion. But He is no less a consuming fire. For us who have Jesus as our Priest, this fire is the blazing sunshine of His love. But He is no less passionate. And He is certainly no less to be listened to. Verse 25 – Do not refuse Him who speaks.
Zion people must listen to our God – and even more so than Sinai people. We must keep listening because we forget that we’re Zion people.
I need to be reminded every day where I am. Do you read the bible of a morning? Do you at least aim to read the bible of a morning? Zion people listen to Him who speaks. And, I tell you, I have to do that in the morning because I forget where I am. I forget where Christ has brought me. I naturally walk into the day as a Sinai person, beginning the day far from God and trying to walk uphill into all my duties. I need the bible every morning to tell me in a thousand different ways, “Glen – you have not come to Sinai. You have come to Zion. You begin the day in Jesus. You begin on the mountaintop and you walk out into the world from THAT height.” That’s what bible reading is for. Don’t refuse Him who speaks.
Do you need to pick up the bible again? Do you need to get back into the habit? Bible reading is not a Sinai thing – it’s not the law, it’s not listening to a thunderous command and trying to struggle uphill. It’s a daily reminder, you’re in Christ, He’s lived your life, He’s died your death, He’s ascended the mountain as your priest, you’re a Zion person. Walk out into your day from THAT height. That’s what reading your bible in the morning is for and it takes just minutes. But it’s invaluable. Don’t refuse Him who is speaking.
Ok so we’re not Sinai people, we’re Zion people and we walk out into our world from the heights of the heavenly city. What will that look like? Let me highlight a few things just briefly from the passage.
First, v14 – look down, we live at peace with all people.
[SLIDE - Living at peace]
We’re Zion people, in fellowship with believers across the world and down through time. But can we seriously express that truth in the world if we’re harbouring grudges within our growth groups. Are there people with whom you are not at peace? Make every effort to be at peace with all people. You are Zion people and the blood of Jesus cries out “Forgive.” If Christ’s blood cries out “Forgive, have mercy” can you refuse to have mercy yourself? Zion people make every effort to live at peace.
[SLIDE – Living out holiness]
Second, live out your holiness. Look again at verse 14: literally it says strive for “the holiness” without which no-one will see the Lord. What is holiness? Something that’s holy is consecrated, set apart, reserved for special use. (Best china, nicest clothing – the special stuff) Did you know that’s YOU, if you’re a Christian? Look back to Hebrews 10:10
10 And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
This verse is bringing to life a picture from the Old Testament. In the tabernacle, items of furniture were consecrated when the blood of sacrifices was sprinkled on them. As the blood was sprinkled the priest consecrated these special items for a dedicated purpose.
Christians are people sprinkled by the blood of Jesus and set apart, consecrated, dedicated to live DIFFERENTLY in the world. Jesus did not die for us to live like the world. He died that we would be different. He died that we would be consecrated to His use, Holy. And without holiness, you cannot see the Lord, you cannot be a Christian, you cannot be a Zion person. What a travesty to walk out into the world and claim to be a Zion person and actually we live like the world. It can’t happen, says v14. If you’re not Christ’s ask Him to sprinkle His blood on you to set you apart. If we are Christ’s it’s time to start living out our consecration – Zion people are different people – holy people.
And thirdly, here’s a major way we’re different – we resist our instant hungers.
[SLIDE – Resisting instant hungers]
Look at v16 – we’re not sexually immoral or godless like Esau. You know the story of Esau? Back in Genesis, he was the firstborn son in his family and therefore Esau had the right to inherit his father’s whole estate. But one day he came in from the field famished and his younger brother Jacob said, “I’ll give you this pot of stew if you give me your inheritance.” And Esau was tired and hungry and aching and bone weary and the pot of stew smelt really good. And he actually sold his inheritance for a casserole. And you say, how ridiculous. Well yes, but people make Esau’s choice every day. Instant gratification now, and stuff the consequences. Here’s a relationship with a non-Christian, here’s an affair, here’s sex before marriage, here’s pornography, here’s any other kind of instant gratification. It’s a plate of stew – that is all it is, it’s just a casserole and if you take it, once you’ve eaten your last bite you will hate yourself. But tired and weary Christians gobble it down and do immeasurable damage. Are you like Esau, and the stew’s looking pretty good? Turn your head – there’s a banquet in the next room. You have come to mount Zion. You have come to the heavenly Jerusalem, to joyful assembly, to Jesus Himself. And that temptation, it’s just a plate of stew with a very bitter aftertaste. Don’t even think about it.
Fourthly, point one another to the grace of God.
[SLIDE – pointing to grace]
It’s interesting isn’t it? Both v15 and v16 begin by saying “See to it” – watch over the church and see that things aren’t going wrong. In v16 see to it that no-one’s sexually immoral. But in v15, see to it that no-one misses the grace of God. Now I wonder whether we’re better at v16 than v15. I imagine we’d say something to a brother or sister if we knew they were about to commit sexual immorality. We’re not too bad at over-seeing that. But what if a brother or sister just doesn’t get the grace of God? They live as a Sinai Christian, their life is full of law, they try to work their way uphill towards God, they know no joy – would we have a word with such a brother or sister? “See to it that no-one misses the grace of God.” Are there conversations you need to have with those leaning towards Sinai?
Fifthly, Zion people are future people.
[SLIDE – Looking forward]
Sinai and Zion are similar in some regards. Because with both mountains you have a people who are hearing from God and soon to inherit a kingdom. Sinai people were soon to inherit the promised land. Zion people are soon to inherit the new creation. Look at v26:
26 At that time [at Mount Sinai] His voice shook the earth, but now He has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken–that is, created things–so that what cannot be shaken may remain.
Sinai was a fearful thing, darkness and gloom and storm and the earth shaking. You might think ‘I’m glad I don’t live in that age.’ But that’s nothing compared to the coming of Christ from heaven to earth to establish His unshakeable Kingdom. We’re not moving away from that kind of earth-shattering experience, we’re moving towards an infinitely bigger earth-shattering experience.
In fact, not just an earth-quake, but v26 says a Heaven-Quake even. All of created reality shaken right. That’s the future.
What should be our response?
28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe,
This is our sixth application – Zion people are grateful people.
[SLIDE – Living gratefully]
Heaven and earth will be shaken right. And our response should be gratitude! Because Christ’s Kingdom is unshakeable. What is done for Jesus and the people who come to Jesus are unshakeable. Everything else is tawdry and flimsy and insubstantial. But we have come to the heavenly city of the living God, our names are enrolled in the new Jerusalem and soon, Christ will return brining Zion with Him and heaven will join earth in an eternally fruitful union. This kingdom will be so solid and stable and enduring, by comparison everything outside this kingdom will be seen as vapour, as dead grass, as chaff that is blown away. But we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken. Therefore let us be thankful.
Well there’s a lot in there. I don’t know how the Spirit has been addressing you through His word this evening. But perhaps there’s just one or two things for you to be particularly bringing before the Lord now.
Are you a Sinai Christian? Or are you a Zion Christian? Do you realize where you are? Do you let God tell you where you are by reading the Scriptures? And as we walk out into the world from the heights of Zion, are we…
Living at peace
Living out holiness
Resisting instant hungers
Pointing to grace
Looking to the future
Let’s be quiet…