Question:

Hi Jeffrey,

I hope you are doing well. I have a question regarding Hebrews 12:18-29. Why does the writer use the example of the events in Mount Sinai (verses 18-21) and contrasts them with Mount Zion and the heavenly Jerusalem and everything else in verses 22-24? What is the significance of what the writer describes? Other than showing that the things in verses 22-24 are better than those of Mount Sinai, I can't clearly understand why the writer uses the events of Mount Sinai to contrast them with verses 18-24. I can also see that verses 25-29 relate to the context.


Answer:

"Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled; lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright. For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears.

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 shot with an arrow." And so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, "I am exceedingly afraid and trembling.")

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.

See that you do not refuse Him who speaks. For if they did not escape who refused Him who spoke on earth, much more shall we not escape if we turn away from Him who speaks from heaven, whose voice then shook the earth; but now He has promised, saying, "Yet once more I shake not only the earth, but also heaven." Now this, "Yet once more," indicates the removal of those things that are being shaken, as of things that are made, that the things which cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:14-29).

The writer begins in Hebrews 12:14-17 to encourage Christians to pursue peace and holiness. They are necessary in order to reach heaven. The contrasting example is Esau who allowed bitterness to pull him away from God. Though he desired the benefits of godly living, he was unwilling to change his behavior.

But the writer wants us to know that Esau's rejection was his own fault. It was not God who was holding him away. When we come to God, it is not like the approach of the Israelites to God on Mount Sinai. There the people were warned not to come close, not to touch the mountain, because they would die (Exodus 19:12-13). What they saw scared them. Even Moses feared (Deuteronomy 9:19). This fear of God, which was necessary, came to represent Israel's relationship with God.

Instead we find that God is approachable in the church. For this comparison he uses the fact that the Temple was built on Mount Zion, the mountain Jerusalem is built. People joyfully came there to celebrate the feasts. The Christian's relation is quite different. Fear is still there, but is overshadowed by our love for God. It is the same point that John makes, "There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. We love Him because He first loved us" (I John 4:18-19).

As the illustration progresses, we see that the writer is not talking about the physical mount Zion. It represents a spiritual idea of what being a Christian is like. It is a better covenant based on a better sacrifice.

Yet, the writer warns that we should never forget that the God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament. He offers us great reasons to come to Him, but just as those who refused God in the Old Testament did not get away with it, we have less reason to think that people today can refuse God and escape. This world is going to end. The physical creation will be removed. All that will remain will be the spiritual kingdom, so we should desire to be a part of it.

Remember that Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians, it proved that Christianity was a superior religion to Judaism and these final arguments are to persuade those Christians not to return to a religion that would not save them.

Thanks for the explanation. So the writer is essentially making the distinction that Christians have access to God in a different and closer way than the Israelites had in Mount Sinai or the Old Covenant in general, correct?

When he writes about Esau's fault, is he comparing that Esau didn't repent as the Israelites also didn't repent? I can't clearly see the comparison the writer makes between Esau and the events on Mount Sinai.

The contrast between the Old Covenant (Mount Sinai) and the New Covenant (Mount Zion) is one of the last in a long series of arguments on why the New Testament is superior to the Old Testament and that it doesn't make sense to want to return to an inferior covenant.

The point about Esau is an encouragement not to let sin make you bitter. It leads into the next point that we are not in an era where we cannot approach God. Thus, we should not let sin keep a divider between us and God. The implication is that returning to the Old Law would keep you facing the fear of God's wrath.