Yesterday, we began our “tale of two mountains” from Hebrews 12. You need to reed that one before you begin today’s. Because today it’s all about a different, contrasting mountain.
Because we (and the original audience of Hebrews) have not come to the terrifying sight of Mt Sinai. Instead:12:22-24 But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
The writer takes us to ‘Mount Zion’, which in a physical sense is the mountain on which Jerusalem was built. But in a symbolic sense, ‘Mount Zion’ is the dwelling place of God. And just in case we were tempted to think of the literal mountain, he describes it as ‘the heavenly Jerusalem’.
It’s the mountain of God’s presence. Where he isn’t worshipped fearfully, at a distance. But joyfully, up close & personal.
In fact, the scene is a party. A ‘joyful assembly’ says the NIV, translating a Greek word (panegyris) that only occurs once in the NT, here in Hebrews. The word means ‘a festival’ or ‘a party’.
And this panegyris of angels is a far cry from the fearful and solemn assembly at Mt Sinai. Why? Because of Jesus. Because of the New Covenant he’s brought in, which makes it possible for sinful humans like us to be forgiven & cleansed, and to stand with boldness and assurance in God’s presence. Because we’re the ‘church of the firstborn’ – that is, we share in Jesus’ inheritance as the Son of God. Because our names ‘are written in heaven’. Because we have been ‘made perfect’, even though we are not. Cleansed by the blood of Jesus: the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
You see, when Cain killed his brother Abel, God said to Cain:Gen 4:10b ‘Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.’
It cries out for justice; for punishment; for the sinner to get what he deserves. But Jesus’ blood speaks a better word. It brings mercy and forgiveness; it gives sinners what they do not deserve.
So given all that – why wouldn’t you want to party? We no longer have to fear God, because his wrath has been poured out on Jesus in our place. We no longer have to relate to God at a distance, because God came near to us in Jesus, and now dwells in us through his Spirit.
If you had to pick which mountain to be at, which one would you pick? It’s a no-brainer, isn’t it? Not Mt Sinai, the place of the Old Covenant. But Mt Zion, the place of the New Covenant!
And that’s precisely the point of this text. The writer to the Hebrews wants us to make a choice between the two mountains. He wanted his audience to stand firm in the face of pressure to conform to those around them. To retreat into normal Jewish life. The synagogues. The sacrifices. The rituals. Again joining in with a religion that feared God and worshipped him at a distance, rather than embracing the new way Jesus had opened for them. A new way that allowed them to embrace this frightening God of Mt Sinai with open arms, as a loving Father.
The comparison of these two mountains, then, was designed to remind them of how much better off they were with Jesus. To stop them wanting to go back to life under the Old Covenant:12:25 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?
As the writer said at the beginning of Hebrews, God has now spoken to us not from a distance, on a mountain – but through the person of his Son, Jesus. So if we refuse Jesus, we’re refusing the very words of God. Just like the Israelites couldn’t bear the sound of God’s voice and the demands of his covenant. And if we do that, we have every reason to fear God.
Now for most of us, we aren’t going to be tempted to go back to the Jewish religion. But the majority culture around us has a similarly powerful, incessant influence on us. Dragging us back into conformity. Pressuring us to fit in. To be normal. To be like everyone else.
And that culture is camped firmly at the foot of Mt Sinai. Where God, if he’s thought of at all, is kept at a distance. He’s crowded out by everything else. His actions are explained away as impersonal, ‘natural forces’. His providential care is mostly ignored, as we go on relying on our own resources to insure against disaster. And most significantly, his offer of grace is rejected, in favour of our own striving, our own self-reliance.
The writer to the Hebrews warns us against rejecting the grace of God that comes to us in Jesus. Because if we do, we fall back unforgiven, into the hands of the powerful God of Mt Sinai. That’s what the first mountain picture is supposed to do. It reminds us of the only alternative to following Jesus: trying to earn the favour of a terrifying God.
That’s the negative motivation. The positive is the picture of the other mountain. Mount Zion. The place where God dwells. The eternal party. The mountain that we’re poised, ready to climb. And really, it’s the only mountain to choose. Because the other one – it’s on borrowed time. As is everything else the world around us holds dear.
You see, this powerful, terrifying God who shook Mount Sinai thousands of years ago – he’s going to shake the earth once more. The writer quotes the prophet Haggai:12:26-67 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.
There’s coming a time when this world will be shaken. Where anything that belongs to the material, physical world will be removed. Only that which is eternal will remain.
So don’t be tempted to ‘fit in’ with our world. Because it’s on borrowed time. When the world is shaken, the temporary things our society puts its faith in won’t be able to stand. Only God will remain.
- When this world is shaken, your career will be removed, and only what you’ve done for Christ will remain.
- When this world is shaken, your bank account and all your earthly possessions will be removed, and only your treasure in heaven, your eternal inheritance, will remain.
- When this world is shaken, your status here on earth will be removed, and only your position as a child of God will remain.
- When this world is shaken, the confidence you’ve placed in relationships with other people will be removed, and only the faith you’ve placed in Christ will remain.
But that which remains is of far greater value than anything offered by the world. And it’s not temporary. It lasts forever.12:28-29 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”
It’s no longer how terrifying God is that causes us to have reverence and respect. It’s how merciful, how faithful he is.
To think about
So. Who wants to go back to Mt Sinai?