Hebrews 12:18-21

As we near the end of our series in Hebrews 10-12, we look at two final images; two mountains, in fact. Yet another argument from the writer to encourage his audience to see the advantage in persevering in faithfulness to Jesus.

A tale of two mountains: Mount Sinai

When we look at the world around us, we see God’s power displayed. The terrifying, destructive forces of nature bear witness to the almighty God who created them. When we look up at the vastness of the cosmos, we catch a glimpse of the breadth of the grandeur of God. When we study the intricacies of the smallest of creatures, or the complex design of our own DNA, we gain a fleeting insight into the unfathomable mind of God. When lightning strikes, we see a hint of his power. When thunder roars, we hear an echo of his voice.

Our God is terrifying.

He is so much greater than us, so different from us, that we can barely comprehend the distance that separates. Our unworthiness, our sinfulness merely magnifies his perfection. So that when we do catch a glimpse of his glory, we recoil in fear and terror. Wondering how it is that our sinful flesh is not consumed in an instant.

Our God is holy.

And it’s this picture of God that the writer to the Hebrews wants to convey to his hearers A picture of a frighteningly powerful, terrifyingly holy God whom we sinful humans dare not approach.

And he does this by reminding us of an event in Israel’s history. Which makes sense, since his original audience was (probably mostly) Jewish. It was an event that occurred on a mountain, and was accompanied by spectacular and terrifying phenomena. An event we call a theophany – that is, an appearance of God. Take a look at to how he describes it. The ancient Israelites had come to a mountain:

12:18b-21 ‘that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; 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, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”

The event he refers to is the giving of the law, at Mount Sinai. We can get a more detailed picture of what it was like by reading the original account in Exodus chapters 19 and 20. As you read it, try to imagine the scene. Picture yourself there, experiencing it as one of the Israelites.

Ex 19:16-19 On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently. As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.

Now God certainly had the angels in the special effects department working overtime on this one. Seriously, if I were an angel that’d be the job I’d want: Theophany Planner. ‘So what sort of manifestation are you wanting today? We can do the usual shiny human form, or were you looking for something a bit more exotic, perhaps a selection from our range of blazing shrubbery?’

But God doesn’t always choose to turn up with heavenly choirs and fireworks. In the case of Elijah, he deliberately rejected the wind, the earthquake, and the fire – and just went with a gentle whisper. Much to the disappointment of his theophany planner, I imagine. So when God chooses to make his appearance at Mt Sinai take on Olympic Opening Ceremony proportions, he must have had a reason.

Maybe he wanted to make it clear how terrifying he really is. How powerful. How holy. And how unworthy the people were in comparison. At least, that seems to be the message behind the next bit. Let’s read on:

Ex 19:20-22 The LORD descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up and the LORD said to him, “Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the LORD and many of them perish. Even the priests, who approach the LORD, must consecrate themselves, or the LORD will break out against them.”

The fact that God turned up meant that the whole mountain was holy. And that which is unclean cannot exist in the presence of that which is holy. No sinful human could set foot on the mountain and live. Even animals who wandered onto the mountain had to be put to death. And if priests were to approach, they needed to undergo purification rituals before they could appear before God.

The message being sent here is clear and unmistakeable: God is terrifying in his holiness. We are not worthy, not able to be in his presence. There is a great distance between sinful humanity and a holy God.

A message which, funnily enough, matched what God was about to do on the mountain. He was about to give the law. The 10 commandments. Israel’s obligations if they were to be God’s special people, displaying his character to the world. A standard by which humans would be measured before a holy God.

And once they heard the commandments, and the accompanying sights & sounds, the people were suitably terrified.

Ex 20:18-19 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 and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”

As it’s written here in Exodus, the people are frightened merely at the sight of it all. At the sound of God’s voice. But in Hebrews, the writer interprets it to mean that they couldn’t bear God’s demands – he was asking too much. Either way, there’s a recognition that humanity doesn’t measure up to God.

Ex 20:20 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.”

Moses seems to understand the reason for God’s display of power. To instil an appropriate fear and respect of who God is. And that’s not a bad thing, if it’s a motivation to holiness. However, at the end of it all, there’s still this gaping chasm between God & humanity:

Ex 20:21 The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.

Now this is from the OT. It’s about ancient Israel. And it would have resonated well with the original hearers of this ancient sermon we call Hebrews. Their background was the Jewish religion. With its laws and sacrifices and purification rituals. Reminding them each day of how holy God is. How we can never measure up to his perfection. It emphasises that God & humanity remain, essentially, at a distance.

But isn’t this how many people today relate to their idea of God – if, indeed, they believe in one? Isn’t this the standard way humanity has related to the idea of deity, throughout history?

Many Australians today think of God as a distant, disinterested force. He might have created the world, but like a Lego construction kit, once you’ve put it together and played with it a few times, it just stays on the shelf and gets forgotten. A God who only turns up occasionally, to mess with people’s lives or cause natural disasters. One whose favour you jokingly seek if you’re in desperate need of a good parking space. A distant God who doesn’t care much for the welfare of his creatures, and even less about what they might get up to.

And it’s the same with most of the world’s religions. For example, Hinduism – where a person needs to earn their way to come close to the divine. And where the simplest way of doing that is by appeasing the many gods through sacrifices and acts of devotion.

Or Islam – one God rather than many, but still the requirement to do stuff to earn his favour. And again, a distant God. One who would never, could never dwell among human beings.

Then there are various branches of Christianity. Eastern Orthodoxy. Roman Catholicism. Where God’s demands are emphasised. For most, it’s about performing rituals for a distant deity rather than a relationship with a personal God. It’s about doing enough to remain in his favour; to deserve it.

Then there’s the caricatured God Protestants have often worshipped. The heavenly killjoy, whose main function is to tell us what we can and can’t do. And if it’s fun, then we can’t do it. Traditionally, non-smoking, teetotalling, dance-challenged Baptists have been among that group.

And then there’s us. When we still feel guilty before God, despite the forgiveness and cleansing we have in Jesus. When we still think we have to earn God’s favour, even though it’s been freely given to us. When we put off baptism because we have the bizarre notion we need to clean up our lives first… despite the fact that baptism is supposed to remind us that we can’t clean up our lives on our own; that someone has done it for us.

In fact, this image of a holy, distant, terrifying God whom we dare not approach – it seems particularly appropriate for a fair proportion of humanity. Maybe even a fair proportion of us, at various times.

But the reason the writer to the Hebrews brings up this frightening picture of God is not, like Moses said, to give us an appropriate fear and respect. It’s not to remind us of how holy and how distant God is. No! He brings it up to remind us that this no longer characterises our relationship with God. It’s no longer like that!

In fact, when I quoted his description of Mt Sinai I deliberately left out the opening few words. The writer says this:

12:18 You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm…

That is, we’re not in the same situation as OT Israel. Because of Jesus, God is no longer at a distance. Because of Jesus, we can approach God. Still with reverence and respect. But no longer in shrinking terror. We can approach God with confidence and joy. (More on that tomorrow, when we get to the next mountain.)

To think about

What’s your view of God? How does that match up with what the writer was trying to communicate to his audience?

Post responses and questions

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