When reading the book of Hebrews I often find that I leave with the nagging sensation that I missed something. That I failed to grasp some profoundly encouraging truth just because I couldn’t understand what the author meant. If you know me, you know that I like to comprehend things – so leaving a passage of scripture un-figured out frustrates me. (Although I am in good company, because it appears that the apostle Peter felt much the same way about some of the things that the Apostle Paul wrote [2 Pet 3:16]). Thus, it is with much fear and trepidation that I try to communicate some of the things that God has been teaching me from my current reading of Hebrews. And even if I am a little off on my understanding, I think that the amount of grace and encouragement that I have gleaned warrants the risk. So here goes nothing:
“For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Hebrews 12:18-24 ESV)
So the writer begins by describing the scene for his metaphor. We are to use our imagination in order to understand the concept.
First, You have come. The passage uses a spatial metaphor (“coming”) to express our spiritual reality. When we came to Christ, we also came to a spiritual display of God’s glory and power, the likes of which dwarf any physical display of God’s glory on earth (Heb 12:18–21). In the Israelites case, they had come to Mount Sinai with (merely) lots of smoke, clouds, darkness, thunder, random trumpets, fire, and heat lightening ([Ex 19:18; 20:18; Deut 4:11; 5:22]; not to mention that weird glowing face of Moses [Ex 34:29-30]). Oh yes, and anything that touched the mountain had to die (Heb 12:20). Can anyone say, display of power?
Second, You have come to Mount Zion. The metaphor continues and shows that in comparison to the display of this mount, the display at mount Sinai seems mediocre at best. Take Sinai and times it by one hundred. Mount Zion surpasses anything that has ever been seen here on earth. The passage starts by mentioning the city on top of this Mount—the heavenly Jerusalem described in Rev 21–22 (huge city Pure Gold—like glass?, Walls of Jasper, 12 huge foundations with lots of crazy expensive stones in it, the river of life, tree of life, etc. ) And it specifically mentions the angels, lots and lots and lots of angels.
You have come to innumerable angels. Now the angels have been singing God’s glory for a very long time . . . and here the writer of Hebrews says that they are singing their very hearts out in unencumbered joy (festal gathering, Heb 12:22)—real joy fueled by the real knowledge of God…still…after thousands of years of being with God.
Ok, so all that sets the scene. Can you see this throne room on this mountain? Can you understand the picture the writer is trying to create? Now, the metaphor begins to describe what happens next.
You have come to the assembly of the firstborn. In other words, you are now one of the firstborn. You are no longer outside the city viewing all of this, your point of view has changed. You are now right the in the midst of the city and in the very presence of the God who created and sustains this most holy and glorious of places.
You have come to God the judge. Your heart skips a beat. You are now viewing God, the judge of all men. The one who has the power to destroy both body and soul in hell…forever. If God’s display at Mount Sinai terrified even Moses (Heb 12:21) and if Isaiah fell down in terror of his own sinfulness (Is 6:4–5), surely you will be terrified as well. Surely the assembly will disburse, and you will run from the assembly in fear to hide under some rock or mountain and ask it to fall upon you (Rev 6:15–16)! But no, that’s not what you will do. Instead, you will stand in front of this Judge as someone “made perfect.” You are the offender who has been declared “not guity” and “made righteous.” But how did that happen?
You have come to Jesus. Ah, now we understand. Someone already felt the terror of your judgment—your death sentence for your sins (Heb 9:15–17). It was Jesus, the one who mediates the covenant, who goes between you and your Father’s wrathful justice. The Father, the judge, has declared it. You are now a firstborn son and thus have this eternal inheritance (Heb 9:15, 12:23). You may now come into his presence and gain an audience with the King in his very throne room, both now (Heb 4:16) and then (Heb 12:23).
You have come to the sprinkled blood. And now, to this passage of such wonderful grace. Here it is, let your heart be refreshed. What does God mean here? He means that your hands are no longer bloody. Abel’s blood is a metaphor of our guiltiness. You see, Abel’s blood called out to God for justice when Cain killed him (Gen 4:10). And you are as guilty as Cain. What? When did I do such horrible things? Before you were saved. You proved yourself to be an enemy of God (Rom 5:10) and sons (“one who had the same hatred”) of those who murdered the prophets (Matt 23:31), even of the one who murdered Abel (Matt 31:35; cf. 1 John 3:12). How then did you escape judgment (Matt 31:33)? Hell is the just reward for sinners and you had blood on your hands that called out for justice. Answer: You escaped through Christ’s blood that was sprinkled on you when he was sacrificed for you. You see, Christ’s blood says a better word, a different message than Abel’s blood. Abel’s blood called out for justice to be meted out with wrathful vengeance (Rev 6:9–10), but Christ’s blood called out for forgiveness in incomprehensible love. (As an analogy: Heb 11:28.)
Now the writer moves to look at the readers response.
You who are thinking of giving up on the faith…please don’t. This warning is for you. It is to be the means by which those who believe will remain fixed on God. God judged the whole world under water (Heb 12:25) so that none escaped. He will judge again and destroy all the heavens and the earth in terrible fire. Be terrified of the glorious justice of God, but do not run from him.
As always, let your running be to Christ.
And there, let us all be equally awed by the sacrifice of Christ and our righteous status as sons. Be grateful for the kingdom which is yours, if you can see it by faith and refuse to be shaken. Be in awe of the grandeur of God. We have no awe because we have no faith to see where we have come spiritually. Let us offer acceptable—reverential—worship to God (Heb 12:28). Let there be joy and awe over spiritual truths instead of some kind of flippant happiness and faithless emotional goose bumps.