Volume 11, Issue 3: Exegetica
The Mountain - Hebrews 12:18-24
The glory of the new covenant is incomparably superior to the glory of the old. To those Hebrew Christians who are tempted, under a threat of persecution and hardship, to turn back to the Levitical system of animal sacrifices, mortal priests, and an earthly sanctuary, the author of this epistle issues a stern warning: that covenant is obsolete and is fading away. Those who turn back to it shamelessly crucify for themselves the Son of God, trampling Him underfoot. The author has shown them throughout this epistle the surpassing greatness of the new covenant. That message culminates here in the contrasting picture of two mountains: Mount Sinai representing the old covenant, and Mount Zion representing the new.
"For you have not come to the mountain that may be touched and that burned with fire, and to blackness and darkness and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet and the voice of words, so that those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore. (For they could not endure what was commanded: `And if so much as a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned or thrust through with an arrow.' And so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, `I am exceedingly afraid and trembling')" (Heb. 12:18-21).
Moses led Israel out of Egypt to the wilderness of Sinai, where they camped before the mountain. On the morning of the third day the Lord came down onto the top of the mountain in fire, darkness, and smoke, in thunder and lightning, and the mountain quaked with a trembling only to be matched by the trembling of the people witnessing this dreadful visitation. At the sound of the trumpet, in the hearing of the people, God spoke in a loud voice the words of the Ten Commandments. When the people saw those portents of God, they were frightened indeed; but when they heard His words, they were undone. "Then they said to Moses, `You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die'" (Exod. 20:19). God commended these words, for He had given this awesome sight to test this people with the fear of judgment, so that they would not sin (Deut. 5:28; Exod. 20:20). In fear of God's words the people begged Moses to intercede for them, which he did while trembling himself.
This signifies the terror of the law, for it is only when we stand in the wilderness of our sin, naked and trembling before the Lawgiver and Judge, that we recognize our great need and cry out for a Mediator.
The law given at Sinai was a ministry of condemnation (2 Cor. 3:7-9), in which the very beasts were punished if they trespassed.
Sinai was a physical mountain, a mountain which could be touched, a mountain which we could today go camp before. It is visible and thus temporary, rather than unseen and eternal. It is not the mountain to which the readers of this epistle have come.
"But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel" (Heb. 12:22-24).
Here we have a glorious description of the church catholic, the church militant and triumphant. It is called Mount Zion, for the promises given to Zion in the Old Testament are fulfilled in her and belong to those who have come to this mountain which cannot be touched. On Zion God has set His King (Ps. 2:6), and from there the Lord extends the Messiah's scepter of power (Ps. 110:2). Blessings flow from Zion onto us and our children (Ps. 128:5), for God visited Sinai, but Zion is His dwelling (Joel 3:21). Mount Zion is the city of God, of which glorious things are spoken, where the elect are registered by God Himself (Ps. 87:3-6). It is the heavenly Jerusalem, not a physical one as some mistakenly believe, which has descended out of heaven from God (Rev. 21:10). It is eternal and untouchable, and cannot be shaken.
We have not come to a desolate wilderness, but to a city inhabited by "an innumerable company of angels." One Angel (at least) was with the Israelites in Sinai; He was an Angel to be obeyed, who did not pardon transgressions (Ex. 23:21). The angels in Zion are likewise glorious and frightening in themselves, but they are here as "ministering spirits sent forth to minister for those who will inherit salvation" (Heb. 1:14). Along with us and the angels are "the spirits of just men made perfect," that great cloud of witnesses, now glorious and triumphant, who have run the race and await us at the finish.
As we come to this mountain we come to the Lord of the mountain, "to God the Judge of all." God is the Judge, so let us serve Him "with reverence and godly fear" (Heb. 12:28). But this fear is not of condemnation; we have also come to "Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant." This Mediator meets our need, who intercedes for us without fear at the Father's right hand, presenting before His throne "the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel." For Abel's blood cried out to God of injustice, but the blood of our Mediator declares our justification. Now the prophecy of Jeremiah 33:16 is fulfilled, "In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will dwell safely. And this is the name by which she will be called: THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS."