THE SUPERIORITY OF THE NEW COVENANT BRINGS GREATER JUDGMENT IF WE FAIL HEED GOD’S WARNINGS
What a contrast the author paints between the terrifying / unapproachable nature of the God of the Old Covenant and the welcoming / approachable entrance to God we have under the New Covenant through our perfect mediator Jesus Christ. But we must choose to persevere in our faith and heed God’s warnings because He continues to be a God of the same nature = a consuming fire. We will find solace and rest in His function as Judge if Jesus Christ is our sacrifice for sins; but there will be nothing but doom and gloom for those who must give an account apart from Christ. God’s kingdom is unshakeable and the heavens and earth as we see them today will be utterly shaken and destroyed. Make sure your foundation is firm and serve God with gratitude and reverence.
Mohler: Those who endure in the faith come to Zion, the mountain of God’s new and better covenant mediated through Jesus Christ. His blood satisfies God’s wrath and permits god’s people to enter God’s presence freely and confidently.
Hewitt: The Epistle now reaches a climax in a passage both graceful and ingenious (verses 18-24), in which is seen the surpassing attractiveness and supremacy of the new covenant as compared with the old. The author’s aim in this is to show that higher privileges carry with them greater responsibilities.
Deffinbaugh: the spectacular and the sensational do not strengthen our faith and produce endurance as much as suffering does.
Brian Bell: The Lord seems to believe a picture is worth a 1000 words. Here the writer downloads 2 pictures for us, comparing: 2 different mountains. 2 different covenants. 2 historic people. 2 important principles. Note all the words that are contrasted when we read: Sinai/Zion; heaven/earth; new/old covenant; terror/joy; shake/unshaken; not come/come; distance/closeness; law at Sinai/grace & glory at Zion.
I. (:18-24) SUPERIORITY OF MOUNT ZION TO MOUNT SINAI
A. (:18-21) Mount Sinai was Unapproachable and Terrifying
1. (:18) Terrifying Sights Associated with Mount Sinai
a. Physically imposing to the senses
“For you have not come to a mountain that may be touched”
Hewitt: The word “tangible” implies that the terrifying manifestations of burning fire, whirlwind, darkness and storm through which God revealed Himself to the Israelites were felt by the senses. The readers when they became Christians had no experiences of any such visible and repellent phenomena. What they experienced was entirely spiritual and gracious.
“and to a blazing fire,”
“and to darkness and gloom”
2. (:19) Terrifying Sounds Associated with Mount Sinai
a. Trumpet Blast
“and to the blast of a trumpet”
b. Unspeakable Words
“and the sound of words which sound was such that those who heard begged that no further word should be spoken to them.”
3. (:20-21) Terrifying Testimony Associated with Mount Sinai
a. (:20) Testimony Regarding the Execution of Animals
“For they could not bear the command,
‘If even a beast touches the mountain, it will be stoned.’”
Mohler: The congregation was even commanded to stone to death any animal that touched the mountain (Exod 19:12-13). The severity of this command demonstrated the costliness of uncleanness in the midst of God’s holy presence. The Israelites feared for their lives. The author of Hebrews uses the command to execute animals to show just how incomprehensibly terrifying God’s presence on Sinai was for the people of Israel. It was so fearsome that even Moses was afraid.
b. (:21) Testimony Regarding the Fear of Moses
“And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said,
‘I am full of fear and trembling.’”
Kent: Although the word “mountain” does not appear in our oldest and most reliable texts, it is clear that the incident at Sinai recorded in Exodus 19:10-25; 20:18-21; and Deuteronomy 4:10-24 is in view. That was a day unequaled in Jewish history, when God demonstrated His awesome power in conjunction with His giving of the law. The rugged heights of Sinai rocked with thunder and crackled with lightning which set the mount aflame. God’s presence descended upon the mountain in fire and smoke accompanied by an earthquake. The smoke doubtless produced the darkness (Exod.. 20:21) and gloom, and the mighty flames would cause strong air currents that would produce a most frightening storm.
The sound of a trumpet, possibly blown by an angel, grew louder and louder (Exod. 19:19); and when Moses spoke, God answered him with a sound of words (Deut. 4:12). These words where so terrifying that the Israelites begged Moses henceforth to act as God’s spokesman rather than have God address them directly (Exod. 20:19).
John Piper: In other words, the experience there was one of fearful, divine holiness without a mediator and with a voice so terrible that the people begged that the voice would stop. Then he goes on and contrasts the Christian reality since the cross (verse 22-24).
S. Lewis Johnson: the Sinaitic revelation is the revelation of the sheer majesty of God, the absolute inapproachability of God, the sheer terror of the presence of the Lord God apart from the blood of sprinkling of the Cross of Calvary. That’s so important for us to remember because it’s a marvelous picture of how our sin and our judgment, and the fact that apart from Jesus Christ we should experience the lost-ness of eternal life, of eternal judgment.
B. (:22-24) Mount Zion is Welcoming and Saving
1. (:22a) Welcoming City of God
a. “But you have come to Mount Zion”
Kent: As Mount Sinai symbolized God’s dealings with men under the Mosaic covenant, and particularly its fearsome, earthly, and temporal aspects, so Mount Zion symbolizes the final grace and blessing in salvation, the accomplished realities in contrast to types and shadows.
Mohler: He paints this terrifying picture of Sinai for his readers in order to make the contrast with the radiant, glorious, and gracious new covenant. The awful terror of Sinai, which is not the mount to which we have come, shows the radical mercy of Zion. At Zion God embraces us with his grace and administers to us a covenant where he does not merely write the law on tablets of stone but on the tablets of our hearts. . .
A proper reading of verses 22 and 23 requires that we interpret them through the lens of the already-not-yet tension we find throughout the New Testament. . . We’ve already come to the city of the living God in one sense, but that reality is not yet fully consummated.
b. “and to the city of the living God,”
c. “the heavenly Jerusalem,”
2. (:22b) Welcoming Angels
“and to myriads of angels,”
3. (:23a) Welcoming New Testament Saints
a. “to the general assembly”
b. “and church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven,”
Kent: The church appears to be a reference to living New Testament believers. They are viewed as still on earth, but their names are registered in heaven (cf. Luke 10:20); and thus they will also inhabit the heavenly Jerusalem. This is in harmony with 13:14, where it is stated the present believers still await certain aspects of the city which is “to come.” They are firstborn ones, enjoying the rights of firstborn sons, because of their union with Christ, the Firstborn (Col. 1:15). These Jewish Christian readers were a part of this church.
4. (:23b) Welcoming Judge
“and to God, the Judge of all,”
Richard Phillips: Of course, if this is the City of God, then God himself must be there. And to him the writer draws our attention: “You have come . . . to God, the judge of all.” This was also something the Israelites found on Mount Sinai: a judging God, a law-giving God, a God who gave the Ten Commandments upon the mount. For sinners, this is a sight that chills even the warmest welcome. Yet this is clearly not the meaning here.
Indeed, the point is quite the opposite of condemnation. For here we see God as judge, yet the fire and smoke and dark and gloom, the threatening blare of trumpets – all the trappings of condemnation – are gone! Indeed, what we see with this judging God is not hell but heaven, not those arrested and punished, but “the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (Heb. 12:23). The host around this God and Judge have been acquitted in his court; they are judged righteous and are made perfect. This is the host to which we belong, if we have come through faith in Christ. Philip Hughes writes, “This Judge is also the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose perfect sacrifice is . . . the first ground of our acceptance and justification . . . To him the Christian believer comes gladly and with confidence, knowing that what is for others a throne of judgment is for him a throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16; 10:22).
For this host God stands as judge, not to condemn, but to vindicate. Indeed, the very fact that he is the Judge increases our comfort all the more, for he will be righteous in accepting us in Christ, who already paid the entire debt of our sin. This is what Paul was getting at in Romans 8:31-34.
5. (:23c) Welcoming Old Testament Saints
“and to the spirits of righteous men made perfect,”
Mohler: There will be no one who is imperfect in heaven. No unrighteous or imperfect person will be in the heavenly assembly. We will not be righteous or perfect by our own accord. Our righteousness and perfection depends entirely on the imputed righteousness of Christ. His perfection is our perfection. His righteousness is our righteousness. There is no human righteousness in Zion. There is only Christ’s righteousness.
6. (:24a) Welcoming Mediator of a New Covenant
“and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant,”
7. (:24b) Welcoming Blood of New Covenant Sacrifice
“and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.”
[2 possible interpretations: the blood of Abel himself as he was slain or the blood of Abel’s animal sacrifice.]
Lane: It may also have been the writer’s intention to evoke the whole history of redemption, from the righteous Abel to the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus, mediator of the new covenant.
MacArthur: The sprinkled blood of Jesus far surpasses the sacrifice of Abel (Heb. 11:4) and speaks better than the blood of Abel. Abel’s sacrifice was acceptable to God because it was offered in faith, but it had no atoning power—not even for Abel, much less for anyone else. Jesus’ blood, however, was sufficient to cleanse the sins of all men for all time, to make peace with God for whoever trusts in that blood sacrifice.
II. (:25-29) THE SERIOUS NATURE OF GOD’S WARNINGS
A. (:25-27) Listen to God’s Warnings about Coming Judgment
1. (:25) Take God’s Warnings Seriously
a. Don’t Reject God’s Warnings
“See to it that you do not refuse Him who is speaking.”
Hewitt: A final warning in verses 25-29 brings to a conclusion the writer’s argument that greater privileges carry with them greater responsibilities. If the Israelites with a partial and limited revelation became liable to God’s judgment because of disobedience, an incomparably severer punishment would fall upon the readers who rejected this new revelation of God and its accompanying blessings.
Leon Morris: Earthly, material things (things that can be “shaken”) will not last forever. By contrast, God’s kingdom is unshakable, and the author uses the contrast as an exhortation to right conduct. He has made it plain that God will not trifle with wrongdoing. The persistent sinner can reckon only on severe judgment. God will bring all things present to an end. Accordingly, the readers should serve him faithfully.
b. No Escape for Ignoring God’s Warnings
“For if those did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less shall we escape who turn away from Him who warns from heaven.”
2. (:26-27) Take God’s Promised Judgment Seriously
a. (:26) Cosmic Future Judgment
“And His voice shook the earth then, but now He has promised, saying, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth, but also the heaven.’”
Encompasses both the earth and the heavens
Piper: The motivation is that one day everything that is unstable and precarious and dangerously volatile – anything that makes us feel insecure – will be removed. And all that will be left will be the rock-solid unshakable kingdom of God.
b. (:27) Constant Unshakeable Realities
“And this expression, ‘Yet once more,’ denotes the removing of those things which can be shaken, as of created things, in order that those things which cannot be shaken may remain.”
Leon Morris: points out the decisive significance of the things of which he is writing. There is an air of finality about it all. This is the decisive time . . . This physical creation can be shaken, and it is set in contrast to what cannot be shaken. These are the things that really matter, the things that have the character of permanence. The author does not go into detail about the precise nature of the ultimate rest. But whatever it may be, it will separate the things that last forever from those that do not.
Constable: The warning proper is found in Hebrews 12:25-29. The readers are called to heed Yahweh, for an eschatological shaking is coming in which the earthly material order will pass away, leaving only an eternal kingdom. The faithful readers who endure will have a part in the eschatological kingdom-the millennium and the New Jerusalem as “companions” of Jesus, the Messiah-King (Hebrews 1:9; Hebrews 1:13-14). This kingdom will become an eternal kingdom.
Ray Stedman: there are some things which cannot be shaken and which will remain forever. That which is shaken and removed is so done in order that what cannot be shaken may stand revealed. Such an unshakable thing is the kingdom of God into which those who trust in Jesus have entered. It is present wherever the King is honored, loved and obeyed. The present active participle (“are receiving”) indicates a continuing process. We enter the kingdom at conversion, but we abide in it daily as we reckon upon the resources which come to us from our invisible but present King. Such unbroken supply should arouse a continuing sense of gratitude within us and lead to acceptable worship of God. What renders such worship acceptable is the sense of God as incredibly powerful and majestic in person, and yet loving and compassionate of heart.
B. (:28-29) Receive God’s Kingdom with Thanksgiving and Reverence
1. (:28a) Stand Firm in God’s Kingdom
“Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken,”
Leon Morris: The “kingdom” is not a frequent subject in this epistle (the word occurs in a quotation in 1:8 and in the plural in 11:33). This is in contrast to the synoptic Gospels, where the “kingdom” is the most frequent subject in the teaching of Jesus. But this passage shows that the author understood ultimate reality in terms of God’s sovereignty. This reality contrasts with earthly systems. They can be shaken and in due course will be shaken. Not so God’s kingdom! The author does not simply say that it will not be shaken but that it cannot be shaken. It has a quality found in nothing earthly. The kingdom is something we “receive.” It is not earned or created by believers; it is God’s gift.
Richard Phillips: this world is not what ultimately matters. If it did, then our commitment to Christ might well be secondary. But God, who shook the earth when he descended on Mount Sinai, is going to shake the heavens and the earth – all things – when Christ comes again in glory and power. The day will come when everything that is of this world will pass away, and those who have their hopes and dreams, their security and their salvation rooted in this world, will find themselves brought to utter ruin with it.
2. (:28b) Show Gratitude to God
“let us show gratitude,”
Hewitt: Therefore, the author concludes, in the light of the permanency, stability and superiority of Christianity. . . let us be grateful. A thankful recognition of the higher privileges, which have been bestowed upon Christians, is a certain remedy for discouragement, which is displeasing to God, and a strong encouragement to the worshipper to offer with reverent fear and awe a service well-pleasing to Him.
[Alternate view: “Let us hold on to God’s grace.”]
3. (:28c) Serve God with Reverence and Awe
“by which we may offer to God an acceptable service
with reverence and awe;”
4. (:29) Seek Shelter from God’s Wrath
“for our God is a consuming fire.”
Constable: The reference to fire in Hebrews 12:29 completes an inclusio begun with another mention of fire in Hebrews 12:18. The whole section that these references to fire enclose deals with how important it is to respond properly to God.
Leon Morris: God is not to be trifled with. It is easy to be so taken up with the love and compassion of God that we overlook his implacable opposition to all evil. The wrath of God is not a popular subject today but it looms large in biblical teaching. The writer is stressing that his readers overlook this wrath at their peril.
Kent: God’s fiery holiness was demonstrated to Israel at Sinai, was reiterated in New Testament times (Luke 3:16, 17), and must not be forgotten by Christians. Believers need not be filled with terror at God’s coming judgment, but its prospect should instill in them a healthy respect for His absolute holiness. Surely any temptation to refuse God’s final revelation in Christ should be most soberly weighed in the light of this warning.
Hewitt: constant expression is given throughout the Epistle to the writer’s belief that the God of the old covenant is also the God of the new. A further and deeper reason why this aspect of God’s character, so frequently found in the Old Testament (cf. Ex. xxiv. 17; Dt. v.4; Is. xxxiii. 14), is stressed is to warn the readers against a false acceptance of the Christian faith. At the second advent of Jesus Christ, just as the material and transitory will disappear and the eternal and permanent will remain, so what is false and vile will be revealed in the fire of God’s holiness and those whose characters are such will be consumed by the fire of His judgment.