Hebrews 12:18–29

Called to Be Holy

Laura Miguélez Quay

Linebrook Church

August 21, 2016

 

In our passage this morning we’re presented with some key differences between how God communicated with and related to his people during the time of the Old Testament and how he communicates with and relates to us now. Or, another way of saying it is that we’re presented with the difference between the Old Covenant and the New. And the author of Hebrews makes his point by focusing on two mountains: Mount Sinai, representing the former ways; and Mount Zion, representing the new. So we might say that what we have here is a Tale of Two Mountains.

Last week we ended with verse 3 in this chapter which, having listed some notables of faith in chapter 11—those who believed and obeyed God in the past—the author then turned to the most notable exemplar of faith, Jesus Christ, God’s Son. In the passage between verse 3 and our own, the author of Hebrews reminds us that because of Christ, all followers of God—whether in Old Testament times or now—are not only privileged to call God Father but, consequently, are disciplined as children and this is necessary because our fallen nature necessitates that we be taught what holiness, our intended end, looks like.

Beginning with verse 18, we’re taken back to the way things were when those mentioned in the faith chapter lived. This is the time of Mount Sinai, of the Old Testament, the old covenant period. Mount Sinai begins with the time in which God’s people received their first formal teaching in holiness by means of Moses through whom God gave his people his holy word, his holy law. Mount Sinai is the mountain, “burning with fire,” and filled with “darkness, gloom and storm.” It is also, verse 19, the mountain from which God’s people heard “a trumpet blast” and “a voice speaking words.” Listen to what Exodus 20 tells us about the time in which the LORD gave Moses the ten—and many other—commandments: “18 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 19 and said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.’” And verse 20 of Exodus 20 tells us the reason the LORD manifested himself to his people in this manner: “20 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.’” In other words, all of these components were a vivid and terrifying reminder to the people not only of God’s holiness but also that they, too, who were made by God in his very image, were called to be holy even as God is. And holiness requires a certain type of living—a sinless style of living.

Now in verse 20 of Hebrews 12 it states that the people “who heard [the voice of God speaking from Mount Sinai] begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded—[namely that]— “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” This particular detail is recorded in Exodus 19. Prior to giving Moses the law, the LORD came to him and said, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you” (9). Next he told him:

10 Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes 11and be ready by the third day, because on that day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. 12 Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, ‘Be careful that you do not approach the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain is to be put to death. 13 They are to be stoned or shot with arrows; not a hand is to be laid on them. No person or animal shall be permitted to live.’

Keep in mind that all of these events took place before God’s Scripture, God’s Word, had been written down. During the Old Testament period, the time of Mount Sinai, God’s people did not yet have manuscripts they could turn to in order to find out what God had spoken. All they had was God’s prophets, people to whom God spoke who then passed along what God had said. So it was important that the people actually hear what God was telling Moses in the dense cloud so they would know Moses was indeed God’s chosen prophet. And the consequences of discounting what Moses said were severe, to say the least. If any person or even an animal touched the mountain, the penalty would be nothing less than death. This is why the author of Hebrews points out that the people couldn’t bear what was commanded. This is serious stuff. The stakes were as high as they can be this side of heaven, resulting in death for any who disobeyed. This is what God’s holiness required.

And though Moses was the LORD’s chosen servant, even he, upon seeing the sight, said “I am trembling with fear” as is recorded for us in Hebrews 12, verse 21. Now this specific quotation actually comes from an event that took place while Moses was actually on Mount Sinai receiving the Law from the LORD.[1] If you’ll recall, while he was away the people, led by Aaron, Moses’ brother, made a golden calf to worship. When news of this came to Moses, the LORD let him know that he desired to destroy both Aaron and the people of Israel for their sin of rejecting him and worshipping, instead, a god of their own creating, the golden calf. So when Moses came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the Law in his hands, he threw them down and they broke to pieces before the eyes of the people.[2] And listen to Moses’ recounting of what happened next in Deuteronomy 9:18–19: “18 Then once again I fell prostrate before the Lord for forty days and forty nights; I ate no bread and drank no water, because of all the sin you had committed, doing what was evil in the Lord’s sight and so arousing his anger. 19 I feared the anger and wrath of the Lord, for he was angry enough with you to destroy you.” So Moses’ “trembling with fear” as recorded in Hebrews 12:21 was for God’s people, not for himself. He feared that in making the Golden Calf to worship, the people had so roused the LORD to anger that he would surely destroy them. But God didn’t.

And so the author of Hebrews uses this well-known account in the history of God’s people to segue, to transition, from terrifying Mount Sinai to joyous Mount Zion. Mount Zion is joyous because it represents Christ’s Kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven, the new covenant in Christ’s blood. Those living approximately 1500 years after the time of Moses have “not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; 19 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” but, verse 22, they instead have come to “Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” So in this third week of considering portions from the book of Hebrews, we are yet again reminded that heaven, not earth, is the final end, the final destiny, of those who follow the One, true God.

Mount Zion, another name for heavenly Jerusalem, is God’s city and God is a living God. And all who follow him are given his very life, eternal life that begins the moment we turn to him. Notice who constitutes this heaven. First up are “thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly” (22). These angels are also spoken of in the book of Revelations[3] where John, its author, says of the vision given to him by God, “Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. 12 In a loud voice they were saying: ‘Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!’” So, again, the setting here is the heavenly worship of Jesus Christ, slain by us and for us, but risen to life eternal that we might never be separated from him again. Christ is God and therefore, as God, is worthy of the eternal praise of this myriad of angels.

And this leads to the second group comprising the citizenship of Mount Zion, the heavenly city of Jerusalem, the city of the living God, namely, “the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.” Brothers and sisters, that means you—and I—and all who have ever followed or ever will turn to and follow this one, true, living God. As Jesus is called the firstborn of all creation,[4] so here his followers are referred to in the plural, as the church of the firstborn (23). And our salvation is secure for our names are written in heaven. In fact the names of all who have followed God, beginning in the Old Testament and continuing into the New Testament and beyond are written in the book of life.[5] In his vision recorded in the book of Revelation, John also speaks of these when he states,[6]22 I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. 25 On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. 26 The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. 27 Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” Brothers and sisters, this is our final end and destiny—to enjoy our loving Jesus as we spend eternity with him and all who have ever known and loved him.

And the means of this heavenly entrance is Jesus himself: He is “the Judge of all,” of “the spirits of the righteous made perfect” mentioned in the Hebrews 12:23. And that righteousness, that holiness, is possible because of Jesus’ obedience and his giving his righteousness and his Holy Spirit to all who believe in and follow him. He is the means of our perfection—of our being made holy even as he is. Holiness is what we are called to.

Verse 24 indicates that in coming to Mount Zion, we are coming to God, to Jesus “the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel,” which again is setting up a contrast with the way things were in the time of the Old Testament and the way things are now. This covenant is new because in Jesus’ sacrifice of himself, he did away with the need for animal sacrifices to atone for, to cover, to make compensation for our sins. By his perfect obedience, this last Adam succeeded where the first Adam failed; but because this last Adam isn’t only fully human but is also fully God, his sacrifice can be applied to all who come to him in faith.

But how does Jesus’ “sprinkled blood” speak “a better word than the blood of Abel”? What is being referred to here? Well, when Cain slew his brother Abel, the LORD initially came to Cain and asked, “Where is your brother Abel?” and we’re all familiar with his well-known response: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”[7]—And, by the way, unlike what Cain implies by this response, the answer is “Yes, we are called to be keepers of all of our brothers and sisters!” We’re all called to look after each other because we belong to one another.—Now having heard Cain’s answer, the LORD next said to him, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. 11 Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.”[8] Abel’s blood cried out because Abel’s life was tragically and unjustly ended by his brother. But though this act was hidden from other humans, it wasn’t hidden from God. For this cruel and heartless act, Cain was cursed and judged by God. But Jesus’ “sprinkled blood…speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” Now like Abel, Jesus was innocent when his life was taken. As the author of Hebrews states earlier in his epistle, in chapter 4, “15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” So Jesus was innocent and therefore wasn’t deserving of death.

However unlike Abel, the whole purpose of God’s Son coming to earth in human form was for the express purpose of applying his innocence—and not only his innocence but also his righteousness, his holiness—to all who come to him. In willingly offering up his own life in agreement with the Father and the Holy Spirit, Jesus is our mediator—he is the means of our being reconciled to God. As such, after noting that he was tempted as we are yet without sin, the very next thing the author of Hebrews states in the following verse in chapter 4 is “16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Jesus’ blood is better because it is the means that our loving and compassionate triune God has established for our returning to him—for our receiving his forgiveness that we might be reconciled to him.

So this reconciliation—this “better word” we find in our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ—is the good news. But it’s good news that we need to be careful not to take for granted. Beginning in verse 25 we’re told, “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?” We’re being provided with another contrast here between the way things were during Old Testament times and the way they are now. Though God’s nature hasn’t changed, what he has disclosed of himself and his will has. During the time of the Old Testament, as we’ve seen, he spoke with, he communicated to, his people primarily by means of his prophets. But with the coming of Jesus Christ, in fulfillment of Old Testament promises, God himself came to earth from heaven. To see Jesus is to see God in human form. And once he had completed his mission of redemption on earth, his mission of becoming a curse for us, of taking on death for us in our place, and destroying death by means of his resurrection from the dead, he ascended to heaven and sent his Holy Spirit that we might have an intimate means of knowing and living with and for him, and following his will for our lives.

What we need to remember is that God’s message hasn’t changed since the time of the Fall. God’s message has ever been: Repent! Turn away from our self-centered ways and those things we think will bring us fulfillment and joy and instead turn to the God, in whose image we are made, and who desires to be our Redeemer—who desires to take on our punishment, to become a curse for us, that we might dwell with him not only now, but forever.

And though this is ultimately a message of Good News since it is a message of how we can be reconciled to God, of how our heart’s desires can be aligned with God’s desires, it is also a message of judgment that we must heed. This aspect of God’s message to us hasn’t changed since the time of the Fall. There are consequences to our not heeding God’s offer of eternal life. This is why we’re told in verse 25, “25 See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks.” Even before God came to dwell upon earth, he remained involved with those who had turned from him. And he did this by means of his prophets. And if those who received the prophets’ words—which is another way of saying God’s Words—“did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth,” verse 25, then “how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven?” By means of his Spirit and Written Word, Jesus Christ, God’s Living Word who after he rose from the dead ascended in heaven, now continues to warn us from heaven to turn to and abide in him.

Returning to Old Testament times, verses 26–27, we’re reminded

26 At that time [God’s] 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.” This is a quotation from the Old Testament book of Haggai[9] and it’s a word of judgment and warning. The picture being painted here is that of separating the wheat from the chaff, of God “gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”[10] It’s a picture of judgment. This is God’s means of separating what is valuable from is worthless. Heaven and earth may pass away, but God’s Word, Jesus’ Word, abides forever.[11]

And, in keeping with an important theme in Hebrews and Scripture in general, verse 28 reminds us that what is most unshakeable is the Kingdom that our King, Jesus Christ, inaugurated when he came to earth, claiming what was his by right. The Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven, Mount Zion which is now our birthright by virtue of God by his Spirit quickening our spirit and enabling us to believe and receive his Word, cannot be shaken. And this should lead us be thankful and to worship God with reverence and awe. It’s so very easy to take God’s salvation in Christ for granted. Just as over the course of our lives it can be easy to take the love and care of our earthly parents for granted and assume they owe us all of the love and care they provided, so, too, it can be easy to take our heavenly Father’s love for us in Christ, in sacrificing his Son for us and our salvation, for granted. But we should remind ourselves of our kind and heavenly Father, of our kind and merciful brother, Jesus Christ, of our kind and compassionate Holy Spirit of encouragement and respond with gratitude, reverence, and awe that we who are but grass that withers and fades[12] are nonetheless the object of our eternal and Triune God’s love.

Brothers and sisters, we are called to be holy. And this means that we are called to experience the joy of God in Christ by means of his Holy Spirit.

We are called to be holy and this means that our names are written in the book of life and that our earthly life is but the beginning of our eternal life with God and one another.

We are called to be holy and this means that we can have assurance that no matter what sorrows or trials this earthly life may bring, they are but temporary for one day every tear of sorrow will be wiped from our eyes and will be replaced with tears of joy.

We are indeed marching to Zion—beautiful, beautiful Zion—so let us be thankful and so worship our loving and kind and compassion Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with reverence and awe, not only now but for all eternity. For this is our calling—this is our holiness—a relationship with our eternal God both now and forevermore.

 

[1] This is summarized in Deuteronomy 9.

[2] Deuteronomy 9:15–17: 15 So I turned and went down from the mountain while it was ablaze with fire. And the two tablets of the covenant were in my hands. 16 When I looked, I saw that you had sinned against the Lord your God; you had made for yourselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. You had turned aside quickly from the way that the Lord had commanded you. 17 So I took the two tablets and threw them out of my hands, breaking them to pieces before your eyes.

[3] Revelation 5:11–12.

[4] Hebrews 1:6: And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.” Colossians 1:15–20: 15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

[5] Revelation 3:5: The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels. Revelation 13:8, 17:8, 20:15 all speak of those whose names are not written in the Book of Life.

[6] Revelation 21:22–27.

[7] Genesis 4:9.

[8] Genesis 4:10. Crossway suggests that Abel’s blood “cries out for vengeance” but “Jesus’ blood brings forgiveness and atonement.” So, too, NIV Study Bible. I’m not convinced this is the point of the contrast being made here. I think it’s more that our sinful actions call for atoning and this is ultimately found in Christ.

[9] Haggai 2:6.

[10] Matthew 3:12.

[11] Matthew 24:35.

[12] Isaiah 40:6–8:A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?” “All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.” I Peter 1:23–25: 23 For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. 24 For, “All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, 25 but the word of the Lord endures forever.” And this is the word that was preached to you.

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