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Hebrews 12:18-29 Biblical Commentary
In chapter 11, the great faith chapter of the Bible, the author celebrated the great heroes of the faith, acknowledging that they had not received the promise in their earthly lives. Then he said:
“Therefore let us also, seeing we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,
lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily entangles us,
and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,
looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith,
who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising its shame,
and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:1-2).
The author called his readers to follow Jesus’ example––and not to grow weary in the face of adversity (12:4). Quoting Proverbs 3:11-12, he reminded them that, as a loving father chastens his children to guide them onto the proper pathway, God also chastens those whom he loves. They should take hardships as signs of God’s loving guidance rather than his displeasure (12:5-11).
He called them to seek peace and sanctification (holiness) “without which no man will see the Lord” (12:14). He further called them to avoid the temptation to give up, using Esau and his despised birthright as an example to avoid (12:15-17; see Genesis 25:29-34 for the story Esau and his birthright).
HEBREWS 12:18-21. YOU HAVE NOT COME TO MOUNT SINAI
18 For you have not come to a mountain that might be touched, and that burned with fire, and to blackness, darkness, storm, 19 the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words; which those who heard it begged that not one more word should be spoken to them, 20 for they could not stand that which was commanded, “If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned;” 21 and so fearful was the appearance, that Moses said, “I am terrified and trembling.”
These verses hearken back to the account of Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai.
“For you have not come to a mountain that might be touched, and that burned with fire, and to blackness, darkness, storm” (v. 18). The mountain is Mount Sinai, where “there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud on the mountain, and the sound of an exceedingly loud trumpet; and all the people who were in the camp trembled” (Exodus 19:16). The mountain “smoked, because Yahweh descended on it in fire; and its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly (Exodus 19:18).
Thunder, lightning, trumpets, and smoke are often used in scripture to announce the presence of God (Exodus 20:18; Deuteronomy 33:2; Zechariah 9:14).
The point of these ominous events is that, while God is a loving God, his holy presence is also fearsome, to be regarded with awe.
“the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words” (v. 19a). “When the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by a voice” (Exodus 19:19).
A trumpet signals momentous events. Before the advent of portable two-way radios, armies used trumpets to signal an attack or retreat. Watchmen used trumpets to signal the arrival of danger. Israelites used trumpets to announce important feasts and festivals.
In this instance, the trumpet announces the presence of God.
“which those who heard it begged that not one more word should be spoken to them” (v. 19b). “All the people perceived the thunderings, the lightnings, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking. When the people saw it, they trembled, and stayed at a distance. They said to Moses, ‘Speak with us yourself, and we will listen; but don’t let God speak with us, lest we die'” (Exodus 20:18-19).
Consider how brave Moses was to leave the security of the assembled people and to ascend the mountain into God’s presence. The people had none of his courage––and who can blame them––see the next verse.
“for they could not stand that which was commanded, “If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned” (v. 20). God told Moses, “You shall set bounds to the people all around, saying, ‘Be careful that you don’t go up onto the mountain, or touch its border. Whoever touches the mountain shall be surely put to death. No hand shall touch him, but he shall surely be stoned or shot through; whether it is animal or man, he shall not live.’ When the trumpet sounds long, they shall come up to the mountain.” (Exodus 19:12-13).
Once again, the point is the fearsome nature of God’s holiness.
“and so fearful was the appearance, that Moses said, “I am terrified and trembling” (v. 21). The Exodus account doesn’t tell of Moses being terrified and trembling. However, he later told the people, “For I was afraid of the anger and hot displeasure, with which Yahweh was angry against you to destroy you” (Deuteronomy 9:19).
Moses was referring to the golden calf, which the people worshiped while Moses was on the mountain with God (Exodus 32). Moses called the faithful to slay the unfaithful with the sword, “and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men” (Exodus 32:28).
Moses then went to God to plead for the people, saying, “Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made themselves gods of gold. Yet now, if you will, forgive their sin—and if not, please blot me out of your book which you have written” (Exodus 32:31-32).
God said that he would punish the offenders, but told Moses, “Now go, lead the people to the place of which I have spoken to you. Behold, my angel shall go before you” (Exodus 32:33-34).
HEBREWS 12:22-24. BUT YOU HAVE COME TO MOUNT ZION
22 But you have come to Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable multitudes of angels, 23 to the general assembly and assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, 24 to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better than that of Abel.
Verses 18-21 looked back to Moses at Mount Sinai. Now the author looks forward “to Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable multitudes of angels.”
“But you have come to Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (v. 22a). These are the first two of eight “to” phrases: “to Mount Zion”––”to the city of the living God”––”to innumerable multitudes of angels”––”to the assembly of the firstborn”––to God the judge of all”––”to the spirits of just men”––”to Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant”––and “to the blood of sprinkling.”
In verse 18, the author set up the first part of the “to” contrast by saying, “For you have not come to a mountain that might be touched, and that burned with fire, and to blackness, darkness, storm.” Now he reveals the second part of the contrast, “But you have come to Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.”
Mount Zion, of course, was the mountain on which the city of Jerusalem was built. It was the location of the temple, where God dwelt in the Holy of Holies. Jews came to make sacrifices at the temple to atone for their sins. They made pilgrimages from all over the world to celebrate the various Jewish festivals. Priests, scribes, and Pharisees gathered there, so Jerusalem was the center of Jewish celebration and religious ferment.
But the author is not talking about the physical city of Jerusalem, but “the heavenly Jerusalem”––the spiritual Jerusalem¬––the true Holy City. In the book of Revelation, the author gives a detailed description of the New Jerusalem––its radiance––its high walls and great gates––its immense size––its foundations adorned with jewels––its gates of pearl and streets of gold. The author of Revelation says:
“I saw no temple in the city,
for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.
And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it,
for the glory of God is its light,
and its lamp is the Lamb” (Revelation 21:22-23).
“and to innumerable (Greek: myrias––myriads––a very large number) multitudes of angels” (v. 22b). The angels are God’s servants. We can expect that God will instruct them to take care of the believers who had not received the promise in their earthly lives (11:39), but who will certainly receive it in the heavenly Jerusalem.
We sometimes speak of guardian angels, as if there is an angel assigned to each of us to guard us. I cannot say whether that is a valid concept or not. However, based on this verse, I can imagine that each of us might be ministered to by a host of angels.
The image that comes to my mind is a dinner in a fine hotel restaurant in Hong Kong while I was on R&R from Vietnam. The contrast between the place where I lived day by day and that beautiful restaurant could hardly have been greater. I sat at a table covered with a clean linen cloth, and ate from fine china and drank from fine crystal. I was surrounded by a half dozen waiters who could hardly wait to fill my water glass or to remove an empty plate or to bring the next course. Never, before or since, have I been so coddled. However, I expect that in the new Jerusalem we can count on angelic ministrations that will far exceed anything those waiters did.
“in festive gathering” (v. 22c). This phrase isn’t included in this translation, but I consulted two Greek texts and found it in both places. It is appropriate here, because it adds a festive note to the heavenly gathering that will surely be present in the heavenly Jerusalem.
“to the general assembly and assembly” (Greek: ekklesiai––church) (v. 23a). I checked two Greek texts, and didn’t find “the general assembly” in either one. A better translation would be “to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven.”
The word ekklesia (translated “assembly” in this translation) is often translated church. It comes from two Greek words, ek (from) and kaleo (called). As used in the New Testament, it means “the called people”––the people called by God––the church.
“of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (v. 23b). Parents are usually excited about the birth of any child, but the firstborn seems especially precious. Only once does the mother get to take her own child in her arms for the first time. Only once does she get to marvel at the tiny fingers for the first time. Firsts are special.
• God considered Israel to be his firstborn (Exodus 4:22; Jeremiah 31:9).
• Israelites were to consecrate all firstborn to God (Exodus 13:2; 12-13).
• Firstborn cattle, sheep, and goats were to be as sacrificial animals (Numbers 18:17).
• Firstborn sons were to receive a double portion of the inheritance (Deuteronomy 21:15-17).
In this context, “the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” are those who believe in Christ and are therefore “enrolled in heaven.”
“to God the Judge (Greek: krites) of all” (v. 23c). The title, Judge of all” first appears in Genesis 18:25, where Abraham is pleading for God, the judge, to exercise justice in his judgment of Sodom, asking:
“Will you consume the righteous with the wicked?
What if there are fifty righteous within the city?
Will you consume and not spare the place for the fifty righteous who are in it?
…Shouldn’t the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:23-25).
The word for judge in Genesis is the Hebrew sopet, and the image conveyed there is that of a stern judge. That is consistent with the image that usually comes to mind when we think of God as judge. However, sopet is also the word for the Israelite judges in the book of Judges. Those judges were given by God to lead the Israelites, to dispense impartial justice, and to deliver Israel from her enemies. When the judges obeyed their God-given mandate, they (with God’s help) created a safe, fair, and orderly environment that allowed good people to prosper. That softens the usual harsh image that we usually see when we consider God as judge. Judging is for deliverance as well as condemnation.
However, we must be careful not to go too far in softening the image of God as judge––or to ignore that aspect of God, as people often do today. God, the Judge, distinguishes between good and evil. He rewards the good, but condemns the evil.
The most vivid New Testament image of Christ as judge is found in Matthew 25:31-46, where Jesus pictures the Son of Man separating the sheep from the goats––the sheep to inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world, and the goats to suffer eternal fire along with the devil and his angels.
“to the spirits of just men made perfect” (v. 23c)––faithful people who lived prior to the advent of Christ (see Hebrews 10:38; 11:39-40).
“to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant” (v. 24a). In the Old Testament, the people of God (Israel) enjoyed a covenant relationship with God, who established Israel as his chosen people. In the New Testament, Jesus becomes the mediator of a new covenant with the people of God (the church).
“and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better than that of Abel” (v. 24b). This is the last of the eight “to” phrases in verses 22-24.
The story of Abel is found in Genesis 4:1ff. “Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground,” so Abel brought God a sacrifice of one of his sheep, while Cain brought an offering “from the fruit of the ground.” God respected Abel’s offering, presumably because it was a live animal, consistent with the animal sacrifices that God would later ordain––although the author of Hebrews attributes God’s acceptance of Abel’s offering to Abel’s faith (11:4).
However, God did not respect Abel’s sacrifice. A jealous Cain rose up against Abel and killed him.
But Jesus’ blood, like Abel’s sacrifice, was acceptable to God––and superior to Abel’s sacrifice in that Christ’s blood initiates the new covenant and brings cleansing and forgiveness of sins to the believer.
The sprinkling of blood reminds us of the last plague in Egypt, the death of the firstborn that was commemorated in the Passover Feast. God sent a death angel to take the lives of the Egyptian firstborn, but instructed the Israelites to sprinkle the blood of a lamb on their doorposts. The death angel, seeing that blood, would pass over the homes of the Israelites, sparing their firstborn.
The sprinkling of blood also reminds us of rituals for purification in the Old Testament (See Leviticus 4; 14; Numbers 8:7; 19:4. See also 1 Peter 1:2 and Hebrews 9:13-21; 10:22; 11:28).
HEBREWS 12:25-29. RECEIVING A KINGDOM THAT CAN’T BE SHAKEN
25 See that you don’t refuse him who speaks. For if they didn’t escape when they refused him who warned on the earth, how much more will we not escape who turn away from him who warns from heaven, 26 whose voice shook the earth then, but now he has promised, saying, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth, but also the heavens.” 27This phrase, “Yet once more,” signifies the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that have been made, that those things which are not shaken may remain. 28Therefore, receiving a Kingdom that can’t be shaken, let us have grace, through which we serve God acceptably, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire.
“See that you don’t refuse him who speaks” (v. 25a). As noted above, the people of Israel trembled at the awe-inspiring presence of God. They said to Moses, ‘Speak with us yourself, and we will listen; but don’t let God speak with us, lest we die'” (Exodus 20:18-19).
There was nothing in the Exodus account that suggests that God was offended by their stand-offish behavior––but God was seriously offended by their repeated disobedience. They built a golden calf and worshiped it while Moses was on the mountain (Exodus 32). They rebelled against Moses and Aaron, because their spies reported that they felt like grasshoppers in the midst of the impressive inhabitants of the Promised Land (Numbers 13-14). The complained that they had no water (Numbers 20). They had sexual relations with the women of Moab, and began to worship Baal (Numbers 25). Etc., etc., etc.
And God punished them for their unfaithfulness.
“For if they didn’t escape when they refused him who warned on the earth, how much more will we not escape who turn away from him who warns from heaven” (v. 25b). It is far more serious to disobey Jesus than it was for the Israelites to rebel against Moses and Aaron.
“whose voice shook the earth then” (v. 26a). When God spoke from Sinai, “smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly” (Exodus 19:18).
“but now he has promised, saying, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth, but also the heavens'” (v. 26b). The prophets spoke of heaven and earth being shaken (Isaiah 13:13; Haggai 2:6). The author of Hebrews interprets those sayings as pointing to the cataclysmic events at the end of time.
“This phrase, ‘Yet once more,’ signifies the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that have been made, that those things which are not shaken may remain” (v. 27). When God shakes the heavens and the earth, he will exempt “things that have been made” by his hands––Godly things––the people of God––those who believe in Christ. Those will remain untouched.
“Therefore, receiving a Kingdom that can’t be shaken” (v. 28a). We can count ourselves as blessed, because we are part of a kingdom that is unshakable––the kingdom of God.
“let us have grace (Greek: charis), through which we serve God acceptably, with reverence and awe” (v. 28b). Grace (charis) is a significant word in the New Testament, especially in Paul’s epistles. The use of charis in the New Testament has its roots in the Hebrew word hesed, used in the Old Testament to speak of God’s lovingkindness, mercy, and faithfulness.
The author of Hebrews calls believers to emulate these qualities that are so characteristic of God––lovingkindness, mercy, and faithfulness. If we will do that, we will worship God “with reverence and awe,” and God will treat our service to him as acceptable,
“for our God is a consuming fire” (v. 29). Appealing to the Israelites to obey God, Moses warned that “your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 4:24). Now the author of Hebrews issues the same warning, changing “your” to “our.” He warns that the creator God and the loving God will also be a consuming fire for those who disobey him.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2016, Richard Niell Donovan