After exhorting readers to continue in the Christian faith, Hebrews gives further encouragement by painting a picture of the choice set before them. On one side is fear and death, but the readers have chosen a life of joy with Christ.
The mountain of fear
You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and 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.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.” (Hebrews 12:18-21, referring to Exodus 19:13)
The mountain does not need to be named, for the readers know it well: Mount Sinai, where the old covenant was made with Israel. The mountain stands for the old covenant — a covenant they have left behind in order to embrace a life with Christ. If we read between the lines, we see that the readers were being pressured by neighbors to return to the old covenant. By describing the results of their choice, the author is encouraging them to remain faithful to Jesus. Don’t look back, he says. That is a covenant of gloom and doom. It has condemnation, not salvation. You have not come to a place like that.
Moses did not fear for his own life — he said, “I feared the anger and wrath of the Lord, for he was angry enough with you to destroy you” (Deuteronomy 9:19). Moses knew that the people had rebelled against God and deserved to die. He asked God to spare them, and God did, but his fear shows the serious penalties involved in breaking the Sinai covenant.
A joyful assembly
In contrast, the new covenant is a place of joy and fellowship with God:
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. (Hebrews 12:22-24)
The new covenant is filled with happy people, where angels rejoice. This is the reward of the saved, those who are the firstborn children of God, who have been welcomed by the Judge of the universe. They were not perfect, but they have been made perfect by the blood of Christ, which promises forgiveness rather than vengeance. The readers have not come to this place yet, but the author describes it as if they have. When they accepted Jesus as their Savior, this joyful place became their new destination, and the author wants to make sure that they do not turn aside.
“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?” (verse 25). The readers probably had Jewish neighbors who said, “If you turn away from the old covenant, you will be punished.” So the author responds by saying it is the other way around: “It is true that people were punished for turning away from Moses, but Jesus rescues us from that punishment, so do not abandon the salvation he gives.”
The unshakable kingdom
The author makes a transition from this warning into a reminder of the reward God has promised:
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. (verses 26-27, quoting Haggai 2:6)
At Mount Sinai, God’s voice shook the earth, but he has also promised to shake the earth again, and the author of Hebrews focuses our attention on the word once. He will do it only once — never again will the heavens and earth need to be shaken, because the shaking will be so severe that only the permanent will remain. Haggai 2:7 promises that God “will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord Almighty.”
The eternal kingdom will come, so how should we respond? “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” (verses 28-29, quoting Deuteronomy 4:24). Since God has promised us a great reward, we should be thankful and worship him — and as the letter makes plain, we must come to him through Jesus. But the danger still exists for those who turn away, for God is a consuming fire to those who refuse him. God will consume all the evil that is within us. That is good news for people who love God, but a threat for those who love evil. We all need the intercession that Jesus offers in the new covenant.
Things to think about
- Why does the author characterize Mount Sinai so negatively? (verses 18-21)
- Do I feel like I have come to a joyful assembly in heaven? (verses 23)
- Do I worship God with thanksgiving, or with fear? (verses 28-29)