Sermon on Hebrews 12:18-24
Text: You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; 19 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, 20 because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” 21 The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”
22 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, 23 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, 24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
In 1806, Commander Zebulon Pike came across the plains and saw the mountain that bears his name, Pikes Peak. He was so overwhelmed by that mountain that he claimed that no one would ever be able to climb it. Little did he realize that Pikes Peak was part of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and that even taller mountains laid beyond. He was so impressed with one mountain that he never dreamed that larger ones were still there. This morning in our text, the writer to the Hebrews directs our attention to some mountains. In doing so, he urges us DON’T CHOOSE THE WRONG MOUNTAIN! 1. You Seek In Vain At Sinai. 2. You Reach Your Goal at Zion.
Before we can fully appreciate the meaning of our text, we must, first, look at the background of the epistle to the Hebrews. The recipients of this letter were Jews who had been converted to Christianity. They had been brought up with the Old Testament laws of clean and unclean foods. Now they were undergoing persecution for being Christians. Some were tempted to return to the safe ways of the Old Testament. In this letter, the writer tells them that all the old ways pointed ahead to Jesus. They were to go forward in their Christianity.
One of the things that they were tempted to return to was the Old Testament laws. To many people, it seemed to them that this was the way to go, if they wanted salvation. We can understand that. Sometimes people feel that they must earn with their salvation. If they don’t earn it outright, they feel that they, at least, help God out a little.
It is this self-righteous attitude that is addressed in the first part of our text. We read in verses 18-21, “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 to death.’ The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, ‘I am trembling with fear.’”
The event that is spoken of is the assembly of Israel at the foot of Mt. Sinai as they traveled from Egypt to the promised land. We read of this event in Exodus 19. What an awesome scene the people witnessed as God himself descended to the summit of Mt. Sinai. Listen to the way this event is described in verses 16&18 of that chapter: “On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled . . . Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently.” This is not a scene that would bring about great comfort. It caused fear in the people. They were so afraid that they begged Moses to speak for them.
It was on this background that God gives his 10 Commandments, his will for all people of all time. By the accompanying circumstances, we can see that God is serious about his Commandments. They aren’t 10 suggestions. They are commands that must be kept to the letter. Put yourself in the place of an Israelite, as you hear these commandments, as you saw the lightning and the smoke, as you heard the thunder and the trumpets. Certainly, you can see why even Moses himself said, “I am trembling with fear.” Who could blame him?
This is the purpose of God’s law. It is to point out our complete sinfulness. The law serves to condemn us. When we hold up our lives in the mirror of God’s law, we, too, should tremble with fear. We have all fallen short of the perfection that God demands of us. We see how we have acted toward God and toward those who are around us, and it makes us tremble with fear, because we know that we are guilty, and we deserve to feel the full force of God’s wrath because of our sins.
Yet, there were and are people, who feel that they can earn their way to heaven by keeping God’s law. God tells us, however, that if we wish to do so, we must be completely perfect. We can never sin, not even once. Indeed, no one can do this. As Paul wrote in Romans 3:20, “No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.” The law stands there condemning us at every point of our life, in our thoughts, words and actions. Mt. Sinai is a scene of despair for all of us.
Yet, remember that Mt. Sinai was a stopping place as the people traveled on their way to the Promised Land. Something better awaited them there. They established themselves there and, later, King David built a capital called Jerusalem on Mt. Zion. They received the fulfillment of the promises that were made to them. The way was rough, but God gave them a land of their own.
Many times, in the Bible, the writers used the picture of Mt. Zion as a picture of heaven. There the people will finally be at peace in their homeland, heaven. The writer to the Hebrews tells the people that they were not to return to Mt. Sinai, where there is only wrath. Rather, they were to keep striving to get to the heavenly Mt. Zion.
What is the difference between the two? Why is there lightning flashing and smoke and thunder at the one and a peaceful, loving attitude at the other? The answer is found in verse 24, “Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” The difference lies in Jesus. In the Old Testament, the people were required to sacrifice an animal for their sins. Part of this sacrifice was the sprinkling of part of the blood on the altar. This was a picture of the sacrifice that was needed for the sins of the entire world. God sacrificed his Son Jesus on the altar of the cross for our sins. Jesus took the full force of the anger God had against our sins, all that anger that we saw at Mt. Sinai. Jesus took the full force of it to the point that he cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. (Matthew 27:46) Jesus was being punished for our sins. Now that God’s anger has been stilled, Jesus leads us to the heavenly Mt. Zion, to a new Jerusalem, where we will live with him forever.
So often we think of heaven and our new life as being so far away. Yet, we read in verses 22-23, “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.” Notice the words, “you have come.” We are already there. It is as sure as if we are standing in heaven right now. Our names have been written in the Book of Life. When the Holy Spirit created this faith in our hearts, we were enrolled in God’s kingdom. We already share in the blessings of being in God’s kingdom. We enjoy the blessings of freedom of guilt from our sins, answers to our prayers, guidance for our daily lives, Christian fellowship, just to name a few. These blessings are ours right now as we live on the earth, until we finally reach our homeland in heaven.
We enjoy the blessings of not being afraid on Judgment Day. Many people will not share in that privilege. They will see an angry God, who will condemn them for their sins. They will be sent away from him forever. However, those who have been brought to faith in Jesus as their Savior do not have to be afraid. We can come to him and say that Jesus died for our sins, and, because of that, we stand blameless in God’s sight. As a matter of fact, it says in our text, “You have come . . . to God, the Judge of all men.” (Verse 23) You have already been declared ‘Not Guilty!’ by the Judge of all men. We will enter heaven because the blood of Jesus was shed for us.
Considering these two mountains, who would want to go back to Mt. Sinai, where there is only wrath because of our sins? Let us keep on pressing to Mt. Zion, where there is the peace of being with God. Let us give up any false ideas of saving ourselves and lean completely on Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins. Let us not be fooled into thinking that Mt. Sinai is the place where we can find rest. We will search in vain there as we try to earn our way. Let us focus in on Mt. Zion and there we will reach the goal of happiness that comes from sins forgiven. May God keep us from all thoughts of saving ourselves and may he lead us to trust solely in him. Amen.
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