I was talking to my family this week about the preparation I was doing for this sermon. I explained that I had read some commentaries and written some notes, but that I was struggling a bit. What’s the Bible passage, and what’s it about. Well, I said. It’s towards the end of Hebrews, it draws together the major themes of Hebrews, using examples from a variety of Old Testament passages, some of which have also been referred to earlier in Hebrews. The problem is not one of a shortage of material, but of too much. How can I open it up without having to preach the whole of the book, and quite a lot of the Old Testament? Especially given that everybody is going to want to get home for lunch.
I’m not entirely sure I have solved this problem, I may have to skate over things that you would really like me to have explored. There may be references to the Old Testament that I don’t explain. So, if quarter of an hour you still have questions, feel free to read around, explore it with friends, even drop me an email and ask me. As we go, I might also suggest bits of extra reading and homework for you, if you care to explore further.
So, to set the scene, the second half of Hebrews 12 is the pinnacle, the summit of the book, it is where it has all been heading. If you read ahead to Chapter 13, it’s a collection of instructions on how to live well in community, and farewell greets. But the climax of the theological argument of the the book is here, at the end of chapter 12.
As we reach this theological peak, the writer contrasts two Biblical peaks, the two mountains of Sinai and Zion. The writer of Hebrews is not the only writer in the New Testament to draw on this comparison. If you want to explore this further you might like to read Galatians 4 and see how Paul uses this comparison, but we’re going to stick with Hebrews, and we’re going to take the comparison verse by verse.
Let’s begin with the first words of v18 and v22. “You have not come….” and “But you have come…” The difference is obvious, it’s the basis of the whole comparison, but it seems to me that the thing they have in common is important as well. Both of them are in the past tense. They both indicate something that has happened (or not happened) already. Whatever this mountain is, you have already arrived there, the writer is saying. As the writer goes on to describe the mountain it was worth bearing in mind that those being written to, follows of Jesus, are there already. This is not a future place we will arrive at. It is somewhere we are already. This is not a description of the place we go when our earthly life ends, it is a description of the place we live now, the place we are citizens of now.
Let’s continue on. In v22 we discover that the mountain that we have arrived at is called Mount Zion, which is in Jerusalem, and at the time of writing of Hebrews would have been understood as the hill on which the Temple was built. Now, back to v 18, we don’t find the name of the first mountain, so we need to do a bit of detective work. If we read the account of the escape of the people of God from enslavement in Egypt, we find that they come to a mountain of darkness, smoke, and fire, and there is indeed a command that even the animals are not to go onto it. It is Mount Sinai, and you can read all about it in Exodus 19.
The differences keep rolling in, one mountain is earthly, the other is heavenly (though remember what we said about it being accessible now). On Sinai there was darkness and threat, on Zion we have celebration. At the foot of Mount Sinai we see the chosen people of God afraid, even terrified. On Mount Zion we have a party of angels and the assembly of the first-born enrolled in heaven.
Again this is not those who have already entered heaven, but those whose names are written in the heavenly book of life. They are already living that life now, and will continue to do so in heaven when this earthly life ends. For more on this, you can read Daniel 12:1, Malachi 3:16, Luke 10:20 and Revelation 21:27.
God is present as judge on both mountains. Explicitly on Zion and implicitly on Sinai. But on Sinai we see Moses, himself afraid, standing between humanity and God, receiving the law from God and taking it to the people In contrast, on Zion we find Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant. Jesus also stands between humanity and God, but he is both human and divine, and so he is able to mediate a new covenant. The old covenant was one of law, the new covenant is one of grace.
This picks up one of the major theme of the book of Hebrews, go home and read chapters 8 to 10, if you want to see what I mean. But it isn’t an invention of the writer of Hebrews, it is there in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, and especially the accounts of the last supper, for example, in Matthew 26:28, Jesus says, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” We also find it in 2 Corinthians 3 (where the contrast with Moses is also drawn on) and in that passage about the mountains in Galatians 4.
There is a new promise, a new settlement, between humanity and God, and it is sealed with blood of Jesus. By his death and resurrection we are forgiven, freed from the power of sin and death, so that we can live, unashamed and guilt free. The writer of Hebrews contrasts Jesus’ blood with that of Abel. The story of the brothers, Cain and Abel is found very close to the beginning of the Bible in Genesis 4. Both brothers offer sacrifices to God, the first sacrifice made in the Bible. Abel’s sacrifice is acceptable to God, but Cain’s isn’t. Cain is jealous and kills his brother, the first murder. Abel’s blood cries out for vengeance. Jesus’ death is the final blood sacrifice, after his sacrifice no further sacrifice is required. And his blood cries out forgiveness. The sacrificial circle is closed.
Having completed this comparison of the two mountains, the writer goes on to talk about the implications, the consequences, what it means for us. We are to take God seriously, we are to respond when God calls, we are to be obedient. This is important. You see, the new covenant provides a new way for us to enter the presence of our holy God. It does not do away with God’s holiness. God is still a consuming and purifying, but now we do not need to fear the fire. There are things in our lives, in our characters, which need burning away, and it might hurt, but we do not need to be afraid. God loves us completely as we are, and loves us too much to leave us as we are.
By Jesus’ blood we are counted righteous, our names are written in that heavenly book, even though we don’t deserve it, and by the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit we are daily being made perfect.
And so, the proper response to this is one of gratitude and worship. That is what we find in verse 28, “Let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship.”
Note, again, the tense. We are already receiving this kingdom. We have started receiving, and will continue to receive more of it. It is not solely a future thing. The kingdom of God is not about as getting to heaven when we die, it is about living as citizens of heaven now. Sometimes this can feel like a lonely way of life. We dance to a different beat. We sing a different tune. We walk out of step with the world. But we are not alone. We have each other. We have the gift of the Holy Spirit.
When Jesus was on earth, towards the end of his time with his disciples he told that them that they would hear of famines and earthquakes, wars and rumours of wars, but they were not to fear because they were the birth pangs of the new age. Nearly two thousand years have passed since then, and we still hear of famines and droughts, wars and rumours of wars.
The world as we know it is being shaken. But we do not fear, because we know that in Jesus we are citizens of a kingdom that cannot be shaken. We trust and believe that, in the end, after the final shaking, all that will be left is the new heaven and the new earth of Revelation, the kingdom of God. So we choose to live lives of gratitude and worship, living now as the citizens of this kingdom, that we may also remain when the shaking ceases.