14 Pursue peace with everyone, and holiness, for without it no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God, that no one be like a bitter root springing up and causing trouble, and through him many become defiled. 16 And see to it that no one becomes an immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that later when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no opportunity for repentance, although he sought the blessing with tears. 18 For you have not come to something that can be touched, to a burning fire and darkness and gloom and a whirlwind 19 and the blast of a trumpet and a voice uttering words such that those who heard begged to hear no more. 20 For they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.” 21 In fact, the scene was so terrifying that Moses said, “I shudder with fear.” 22 But you have come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the assembly 23 and congregation of the firstborn, who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous, who have been made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks of something better than Abel’s does.
25 Take care not to refuse the one who is speaking! For if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less shall we, if we reject the one who warns from heaven? 26 Then his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “I will once more shake not only the earth but heaven too.” 27 Now this phrase “once more” indicates the removal of what is shaken, that is, of created things, so that what is unshaken may remain. 28 So since we are receiving an unshakable kingdom, let us give thanks, and through this let us offer worship pleasing to God in devotion and awe. 29 For our God is indeed a devouring fire (Hebrews 12:14-29).3
As I was reading the description of the spectacular manifestations that took place at Mount Sinai,4 my mind turned to the 2008 Summer Olympics held in Beijing, China. Like my wife and I, most of you probably watched the opening ceremony last August and were impressed by it. And well we should be. In addition to the countless number of man-hours that were expended in preparations for this extravaganza, a great deal of money was spent as well. Conservative estimates of the cost of this one ceremony exceed 100 million dollars. One can only imagine what the folks in London will feel obliged to do to commence the 2012 Olympics.
There is nothing like the spectacular and the sensational to attract and dazzle a crowd. I read recently that the movie “Fast & Furious” was to be released this month. To heighten the movie goers’ experience, a number of theaters will be introducing motion-oriented seats. These seats will move in sync with the scenes of the movie, enhancing the audience’s sense of participation.
A number of churches seem to have been influenced by this attraction to the sensational. No longer can we expect the lack-luster plainness of church as we once knew it. In some churches, one can expect smoke machines, movie set lighting apparatus, incredible sound and speaker systems, and who knows what all to attract and dazzle those who attend. I couldn’t help but wonder how much equipment it would take to create a spectacular reenactment of the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. The question we would have to ask is this: “How effective is the spectacular in bringing people to faith in Jesus and in making disciples of them?” I believe our text speaks to this question, providing us with an answer that might significantly reduce some church budgets.
The Book of Hebrews is about Jesus, who came to earth in human flesh as the perfect manifestation of God on earth (1:1-4). He is superior to the angels, to Moses, and to the Aaronic priesthood. His dwelling place at the Father’s right hand is superior to the tabernacle. The New Covenant, which He inaugurated by the shedding of His blood, is superior to the Old, and His once-for-all sacrifice is sufficient to save and sanctify everyone who receives God’s salvation by faith in Jesus. Because of His superior sacrifice, men are now able to draw near to God, and thus the author exhorts his readers to do so in chapter 10 (verses 19-23). This is accompanied by an exhortation to encourage others in their faith (10:24-25) and a warning against deliberately continuing a life of sin (10:26-31). This warning is followed by an encouragement, based upon their faithful service and perseverance in an earlier period of persecution (10:32-39).
Chapter 11 is all about faith. Here, the author demonstrates that all of those who gained God’s approval did so on the basis of faith. Since salvation is the result of the sacrifice of Jesus at Calvary, men are not saved by their good works, but on the basis of their faith in the Great High Priest after the order of Melchizedek (Jesus).
Chapter 12 begins with a reminder that the Hebrew Christians have a great host of witnesses not merely looking on, but cheering them on as they run the race set before them. Thus the author encourages his readers to run the race set before them with endurance. They are to do this with their eyes fixed on Jesus, who is the founder and finisher of the faith (12:1-3). They are also exhorted to endure suffering and adversity as divine discipline, lovingly administered for their growth and sanctification (12:4-13). The Hebrew saints are also exhorted to minister to others, for their own good and also for the good of the church (12:14-17). This leads the author to contrast Mount Sinai (12:18-21) with Mount Zion (12:22-24), followed by some closing words of warning and exhortation (12:25-29).
In the presence of those Old Testament men and women of faith who are looking on with great interest, run with endurance the race God has set before you (verse 1), keeping Jesus foremost in your minds, especially the endurance He displayed in completing His mission by enduring5 the agony of the wrath of both God and men.
Recognize, too, that part of running the race set before you is enduring the pain and persecution of this life as divine discipline, metered out by a loving Father which, incidentally, is also proof of your sonship.
Having been encouraged and strengthened by knowing this, you must also pay attention to your brethren, some of whom are weak in their faith, and some of whom are lost. You are to minister to them for their sakes, and because they can become a stumbling block to others in the church. You are not to stand idly by while someone becomes immoral or ungodly – someone like Esau, who had no faith in God and no regard for His promise of spiritual blessing. Consequently, he exchanged his spiritual birthright for a bowl of stew, a decision he could not reverse when he regretted his folly.
18 For you have not come to something that can be touched, to a burning fire and darkness and gloom and a whirlwind 19 and the blast of a trumpet and a voice uttering words such that those who heard begged to hear no more. 20 For they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.” 21 In fact, the scene was so terrifying that Moses said, “I shudder with fear.”
22 But you have come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the assembly 23 and congregation of the firstborn, who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous, who have been made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks of something better than Abel’s does (Hebrews 12:18-24, emphasis by underscoring mine).
The first difficulty I had to deal with in these verses was the first word, “For.” Strangely, it is missing in the NIV; but then perhaps it isn’t so strange.6 Maybe the translators could not see the logical connection, and so they simply omitted the “For.” I was pleased to see that John Piper did see the connection.7 I think the connection indicated by the “For” in verse 18 links the contrast between the two mountains in verses 18-24 with the unbelief and immorality of Esau in verses 16-17.
According to our author, Esau was both immoral and ungodly (an unbeliever). I see these two assessments as both being rooted in the same problem. Esau was a man who, unlike the people of faith named in chapter 11, did not look for God’s blessings after their death.8 Esau was a man who did not believe in what he could not see. The spiritual blessings which accompanied the birthright of the firstborn were “unseen” future promises; the bowl of stew was something he could see, and smell, and (if he traded his birthright for it) taste. Similarly, Esau’s immorality was yet another evidence of his desire for present physical pleasure, as opposed to delayed divine blessings.
So what does this have to do with the author contrasting Mount Sinai and Mount Zion (as indicated by the connective, “For”)? It further pursues Esau’s failure of faith, but in a way that is more obviously related to the lives of the Hebrew Christians to whom this epistle was penned. Let me summarize the author’s point (as I understand it) and then deal with it in greater detail.
Mount Sinai is something like Jacob’s stew, while Mount Zion is like Esau’s birthright. The birthright and its blessings were vastly better, but these were future and thus as yet “unseen.” The revelation of God to Israel at Mount Sinai was seen, heard, smelled (the smoke), and felt (the earthquakes). The law that was given set forth God’s conditions for Israel’s enjoyment of an earthly kingdom. Judaism clung to Sinai, Moses, and the Old Covenant because it seemed to offer a more immediate (albeit inferior) and more visible kingdom.
Mount Zion, on the other hand, represents a spiritual city (“the heavenly Jerusalem,” verse 22) and thus a spiritual kingdom. Mount Zion represents all that Christians hope for in the next life and that for which they are willing to make great sacrifices in this life. Just as Esau had to make a choice between a bowl of stew and God’s promised blessings, so the readers must choose between a present, earthly, Jewish kingdom (Mount Sinai) with its earthly temple, or God’s promised eternal kingdom (Mount Zion).
The “For” which commences verse 18 explains the reason for the author’s warning about Esau. Esau was a man who lacked faith in God, and thus he made his choices on the basis of what he could see and smell and eat. We, along with the first recipients of this epistle, have not come to a present, physical kingdom, introduced by spectacular sights, smells, sounds, and feelings (earthquakes). Such were the events surrounding the giving of the law at Mount Sinai, but we have come to something much different; we have come to Mount Zion.
You have to admit that for those who insist upon empirical (scientific) evidence in order to believe would not have lacked sufficient proof of God’s presence on Mount Sinai. When we go back to the account of the giving of the law in Exodus 19 and 20, and the repetition of that account in Deuteronomy 4 and 5, we are reminded of some very dramatic evidences of God’s presence among His people. The mountain was so holy (because of its proximity to God) that it could not be touched. There was a burning fire and dark clouds, a whirlwind, earthquakes, and trumpet blasts that would have even impressed and terrified the young people who drive around in their cars with their stereos blasting so loud you can hear them a block away.
I do not wish to minimize the impact that the sights and sounds of Sinai had upon those who witnessed them. These were so awesome that even Moses was terrified by what he observed:
In fact, the scene was so terrifying that Moses said, “I shudder with fear” (Hebrews 12:21).
But I want you to take note of what it was that most terrified those Israelites who witnessed the events at Mount Sinai. It was not just the events surrounding the giving of the law that caused the Israelites to fear; it was the words of the law itself:
. . . and a voice uttering words such that those who heard begged to hear no more. 20 For they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned” (Hebrews 12:19b-20).
What is so frightening about this command that our author would use it to illustrate the fearfulness of the Israelites? Here’s the way I see it. The reality behind this command is the holiness of God. He is (apart from God’s provision in Jesus Christ) unapproachable by sinful men. He is so holy that even animals cannot get too close, or they must be put to death. So far as sin is concerned, animals are innocent – that is, they do not willfully sin as men do. (I think this is why they were used for sacrifices.) But if God requires that innocent animals be put to death for encroaching on God’s sacred space, then what does this imply for sinful men?
I do think it is important for us to grasp the fact that Israel’s fears are not merely based upon the spectacular events at Sinai, but rather upon the revelation of God’s law. As I was reading the account of the giving of the law in Exodus 19 and 20, I noted that while the spectacular events were taking place before the eyes of the Israelites, the danger was that curious Israelites would draw too near to observe these things “up close and personal.” Thus we read,
16 On the third day in the morning there was thunder and lightning and a dense cloud on the mountain, and the sound of a very loud horn; all the people who were in the camp trembled. 17 Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their place at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was completely covered with smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire, and its smoke went up like the smoke of a great furnace, and the whole mountain shook violently. 19 When the sound of the horn grew louder and louder, Moses was speaking and God was answering him with a voice. 20 The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain, and the Lord summoned Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. 21 The Lord said to Moses, “Go down and solemnly warn the people, lest they force their way through to the Lord to look, and many of them perish (Exodus 19:16-21, emphasis mine).
Go to Six Flags or Disneyland and you will see that people line up to take the scariest rides. There is something fascinating, drawing, about the spectacular and the awesome. This is why God had to repeatedly instruct Moses to warn the Israelites not to get too close to the mountain.9 It is not until after the Ten Commandments are given to the people (Exodus 20:1-17) that they become so frightened that they want Moses to speak to God from then on:
18 All the people were seeing the thundering and the lightning, and heard the sound of the horn, and saw the mountain smoking – and when the people saw it they trembled with fear and kept their distance. 19 They said to Moses, “You speak to us and we will listen, but do not let God speak with us, lest we die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you so that you do not sin.” 21 The people kept their distance, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was (Exodus 20:18-21).
Lest we think that the Israelites wrongly responded to this situation, we should be reminded of these words in Deuteronomy:
22 The Lord said these things to your entire assembly at the mountain from the middle of the fire, the cloud, and the darkness with a loud voice, and that was all he said. Then he inscribed the words on two stone tablets and gave them to me. 23 Then, when you heard the voice from the midst of the darkness while the mountain was ablaze, all your tribal leaders and elders approached me. 24 You said, “The Lord our God has shown us his great glory and we have heard him speak from the middle of the fire. It is now clear to us that God can speak to human beings and they can keep on living. 25 But now, why should we die, because this intense fire will consume us! If we keep hearing the voice of the Lord our God we will die! 26 Who is there from the entire human race who has heard the voice of the living God speaking from the middle of the fire as we have, and has lived? 27 You go near so that you can hear everything the Lord our God is saying and then you can tell us whatever he says to you; then we will pay attention and do it.” 28 When the Lord heard you speaking to me, he said to me, “I have heard what these people have said to you – they have spoken well. 29 If only it would really be their desire to fear me and obey all my commandments in the future, so that it may go well with them and their descendants forever (Deuteronomy 5:22-29, emphasis mine).
The splendor and spectacularity of the events at Mount Sinai were intended to inspire a reverence and awe for God that would encourage obedience to His commands. Contrary to the teaching of Jewish legalists, the law was not given so that the Israelites could earn God’s favor by doing good. The law served to reveal man’s sin and his need for a Savior. This is Paul’s argument in Romans 3:
19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. 21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed – 22 namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. 24 But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:19-24).
So what is it about Mount Sinai that our author wants us to grasp? The sensory events accompanying the giving of the law were numerous, spectacular, and impressive. One could not ask for more impressive or substantial proof, not only of God’s existence, but of His majesty, power, and holiness. In spite of their immediate impact on the Israelites, these awesome manifestations of God’s power and holiness did not produce faith or obedience. God miraculously (and spectacularly) humbled the “gods” of Egypt and then parted the Red Sea for His people to pass through. Shortly after this, He gave Israel His law, accompanied with a grand display of His awesome holiness at Mount Sinai. But after all this, the Israelites still murmured and grumbled and rebelled against God. While they were still at the base of Mount Sinai and Moses was still on the mountain, they had Aaron fashion a golden calf, which they worshipped like the heathen (see Exodus 32).
The Hebrew Christians are told that they have not come to Mount Sinai; instead, they have come to Mount Zion:
22 But you have come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the assembly 23 and congregation of the firstborn, who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous, who have been made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks of something better than Abel’s does (Hebrews 12:22-24, emphasis by underscoring mine).
We have already been told that Abraham and the Old Testament saints were not looking for an earthly city, but a heavenly one.10 And thus our author makes it clear that the “Mount Zion” of which he speaks is not the earthly Jerusalem (and its temple), but the heavenly Jerusalem. This would be the “Jerusalem” we read about in Revelation 21:
1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and earth had ceased to exist, and the sea existed no more. 2 And I saw the holy city – the new Jerusalem – descending out of heaven from God, made ready like a bride adorned for her husband (Revelation 21:1-2).
When we read Revelation chapters 4 and 5, this is the fulfillment of what the author of Hebrews has described as our heavenly hope. This spiritual Jerusalem which we await will be a very well populated place. There will be myriads11 of angels present. Also there will be “the assembly and congregation of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” and “the spirits of the righteous, who have been made perfect.” I take it that this covers not only the Old Testament saints who died in faith without yet receiving the promises, but also present day believers who still live in the world.
It is interesting to notice who isn’t mentioned in the description of heaven, especially because it is so often the focus of Christian thought and conversations concerning heaven. We do not read that in heaven there is mother and father, sister or brother, son or daughter (even the family pet). Now I believe that we will see our saved loved ones in heaven, but I don’t think this should be our focus. Our primary focus and desire should be to dwell in the presence of our Lord (indeed, of the entire Godhead). And thus we read that the heavenly Jerusalem is the place where we will dwell in the presence of God the Father and God the Son, our Great High Priest.
The Father is referred to as “the Judge of all.” This is not the designation I would have expected, and yet it makes perfect sense. The revelation of God at Mount Sinai highlighted His holiness, which prompted the Israelites to shrink back in fear. At Mount Zion, God is present as well, and with some of the same evidences of His holiness:
2 Immediately I was in the Spirit, and a throne was standing in heaven with someone seated on it! 3 And the one seated on it was like jasper and carnelian in appearance, and a rainbow looking like it was made of emerald encircled the throne. 4 In a circle around the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on those thrones were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white clothing and had golden crowns on their heads. 5 From the throne came out flashes of lightning and roaring and crashes of thunder. Seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God, were burning in front of the throne 6 and in front of the throne was something like a sea of glass, like crystal (Revelation 4:2-6a, emphasis mine).
And yet men do not shrink away in fear. Why is this? It is because the Father’s wrath has been satisfied by the sacrifice of the Son. That is what we read in both Hebrews and Revelation:
And to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks of something better than Abel’s does (Hebrews 12:24).
7 Then he came and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne, 8 and when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders threw themselves to the ground before the Lamb. Each of them had a harp and golden bowls full of incense (which are the prayers of the saints). 9 They were singing a new song:
“You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals
because you were killed,
and at the cost of your own blood you have purchased for God
persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation.
10 You have appointed them as a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.”
11 Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels in a circle around the throne, as well as the living creatures and the elders. Their number was ten thousand times ten thousand – thousands times thousands – 12 all of whom were singing in a loud voice:
“Worthy is the lamb who was killed
to receive power and wealth
and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and praise!”
13 Then I heard every creature – in heaven, on earth, under the earth, in the sea, and all that is in them – singing:
“To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise, honor, glory, and ruling power forever and ever!”
14 And the four living creatures were saying “Amen,” and the elders threw themselves to the ground
The reason why countless men and women may now draw near in worship is that Jesus Christ, the Great High Priest of the order of Melchizedek, has offered Himself as the sacrifice for their sins, once for all.12 He is the mediator of the New Covenant, and thus His sprinkled blood speaks of far better things than does the blood of Abel.
8 Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. 9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” And he replied, “I don’t know! Am I my brother’s guardian?” 10 But the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! 11 So now, you are banished from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand” (Genesis 4:8-11, emphasis mine).
Abel’s blood – the blood Cain shed when he murdered his brother – was speaking, just as God said. It was crying out for justice. How different was the sprinkled blood of the Lord Jesus. It covered the sins of all who claim it for salvation. And heaven will afford all eternity for men to praise God for it.13
25 Take care not to refuse the one who is speaking! For if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less shall we, if we reject the one who warns from heaven? 26 Then his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “I will once more shake not only the earth but heaven too.” 27 Now this phrase “once more” indicates the removal of what is shaken, that is, of created things, so that what is unshaken may remain. 28 So since we are receiving an unshakable kingdom, let us give thanks, and through this let us offer worship pleasing to God in devotion and awe. 29 For our God is indeed a devouring fire (Hebrews 12:25-29).
The words God spoke to the Israelites at Mount Sinai were those which the Israelites could not bear (Hebrews 12:19-20). These were the words of the Old Covenant, words written on stone. But the words which God has spoken by His Son are words written on hearts of flesh:
1 After God spoke long ago in various portions and in various ways to our ancestors through the prophets, 2 in these last days he has spoken to us in a son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he created the world. 3 The Son is the radiance of his glory and the representation of his essence, and he sustains all things by his powerful word, and so when he had accomplished cleansing for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Hebrews 1:1-3).
Therefore we must pay closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. 2 For if the message spoken through angels proved to be so firm that every violation or disobedience received its just penalty, 3 how will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was first communicated through the Lord and was confirmed to us by those who heard him, 4 while God confirmed their witness with signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will (Hebrews 2:1-4).
2 You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone, 3 revealing that you are a letter of Christ, delivered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on stone tablets but on tablets of human hearts (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).
Consequently, the author can strongly urge his readers not to respond as the Israelites did at Mount Sinai (and afterwards!). Instead, they are to respond as those who have come to Mount Zion. They are to hear and to heed what God has spoken through His Son. And they are to learn from Mount Sinai just how serious the consequences are for rejecting God’s Word. The author argues here from the lesser to the greater. If God dealt severely with the Israelites for rejecting the warnings He uttered from Mount Sinai, how much greater will the consequences be for rejecting Him (Jesus), who warns us from heaven?
Consistent with the author’s style, he usually follows his warnings with a word of encouragement. And so we find great encouragement in verses 26-29.
26 Then his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “I will once more shake not only the earth but heaven too.” 27 Now this phrase “once more” indicates the removal of what is shaken, that is, of created things, so that what is unshaken may remain. 28 So since we are receiving an unshakable kingdom, let us give thanks, and through this let us offer worship pleasing to God in devotion and awe. 29 For our God is indeed a devouring fire (Hebrews 12:26-29).
Note the contrast between “Then” and “now” (verse 26), and by inference between “Mount Sinai” and “Mount Zion.” One of the phenomena that occurred at Sinai was the shaking of the earth:
17 Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their place at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was completely covered with smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire, and its smoke went up like the smoke of a great furnace, and the whole mountain shook violently (Exodus 19:17-18, emphasis mine).
Our author then takes up the prophetic theme of a future “shaking” that will occur in the end times, a theme found in both Old and New Testaments:
6 “Moreover, the Lord who rules over all says: ‘In just a little while I will once again shake the sky and the earth, the sea and the dry ground’” (Haggai 2:6).
13 “So I will shake the heavens,
and the earth will shake loose from its foundation,
because of the fury of the Lord who commands armies,
in the day he vents his raging anger” (Isaiah 13:13).
18 . . . For the floodgates of the heavens are opened up
and the foundations of the earth shake.
19 The earth is broken in pieces,
the earth is ripped to shreds,
the earth shakes violently.
20 The earth will stagger around like a drunk;
it will sway back and forth like a hut in a windstorm.
Its sin will weigh it down,
and it will fall and never get up again (Isaiah 24:18-20).
6 “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. Make sure that you are not alarmed, for this must happen, but the end is still to come. 7 For nation will rise up in arms against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these things are the beginning of birth pains” (Matthew 24:6-8).
12 Then I looked when the Lamb opened the sixth seal, and a huge earthquake took place; the sun became as black as sackcloth made of hair, and the full moon became blood red; 13 and the stars in the sky fell to the earth like a fig tree dropping its unripe figs when shaken by a fierce wind. 14 The sky was split apart like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was moved from its place. 15 Then the kings of the earth, the very important people, the generals, the rich, the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains. 16 They said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one who is seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17 because the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to withstand it?” (Revelation 6:12-17).
17 Finally the seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air and a loud voice came out of the temple from the throne, saying: “It is done!” 18 Then there were flashes of lightning, roaring, and crashes of thunder, and there was a tremendous earthquake – an earthquake unequaled since humanity has been on the earth, so tremendous was that earthquake. 19 The great city was split into three parts and the cities of the nations collapsed. So Babylon the great was remembered before God, and was given the cup filled with the wine made of God’s furious wrath (Revelation 16:17-19).
The shaking of the earth includes a political “shakeup” as well as a physical “shakeup” (earthquakes). This “shaking” spells the end of the world as we know it. And at the same time, there is the promise of the “new heavens and new earth” that will follow. And so our author is surely right to speak of the final shaking as the termination of many things, as well as the inauguration of a whole new entity – Mount Zion, and the New Jerusalem.
Why does the author choose to cite Haggai 2:6 instead of one of the other prophetic texts? Let me suggest some reasons. First, the author cites Haggai 2:6 because it speaks not only of judgment and destruction, but of a new creation with even greater glory. Second, the text in Haggai speaks specifically of Jerusalem and the temple.
2 “Ask the following questions to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, the high priest Joshua son of Jehozadak, and the remnant of the people: 3 ‘Who among you survivors saw the former splendor of this temple? How does it look to you now? Isn’t it nothing by comparison? 4 Even so, take heart, Zerubbabel,’ says the Lord. ‘Take heart, Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and all you citizens of the land,’ says the Lord, ‘and begin to work. For I am with you,’ says the Lord who rules over all. 5 ‘Do not fear, because I made a promise to your ancestors when they left Egypt, and my spirit even now testifies to you.’ 6 Moreover, the Lord who rules over all says: ‘In just a little while I will once again shake the sky and the earth, the sea and the dry ground. 7 I will also shake up all the nations, and they will offer their treasures; then I will fill this temple with glory,’ says the Lord who rules over all. 8 ‘The silver and gold will be mine,’ says the Lord who rules over all. 9 ‘The future splendor of this temple will be greater than that of former times,’ the Lord who rules over all declares, ‘and in this place I will give peace’” (Haggai 2:2-9).
We dare not forget the attachment the Jews, including the Lord’s disciples, had to Jerusalem and to the temple:
1 Now as Jesus was going out of the temple courts, one of his disciples said to him, “Teacher, look at these tremendous stones and buildings!” (Mark 13:1)
59 The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were trying to find false testimony against Jesus so that they could put him to death. 60 But they did not find anything, though many false witnesses came forward. Finally two came forward 61 and declared, “This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days’” (Matthew 26:59-61).
13 They brought forward false witnesses who said, “This man does not stop saying things against this holy place and the law. 14 For we have heard him saying that Jesus the Nazarene will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us” (Acts 6:13-14).14
27 When the seven days were almost over, the Jews from the province of Asia who had seen him in the temple area stirred up the whole crowd and seized him, 28 shouting, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who teaches everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this sanctuary! Furthermore he has brought Greeks into the inner courts of the temple and made this holy place ritually unclean!” 29 (For they had seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with him previously, and they assumed Paul had brought him into the inner temple courts.) (Acts 21:27-29)
I believe that one of the temptations the Hebrew believers faced was to forsake the simplicity of the gospel and New Testament worship for the splendor and ceremony of Old Covenant worship in the temple at Jerusalem. Little did they realize (though Jesus had clearly told His disciples) that the temple and Jerusalem were soon to be destroyed.15
The parallel of this quotation from Haggai 2:6, and the circumstances facing the Hebrew believers to whom our epistle is written, is striking. In Haggai, the glorious temple in Jerusalem built by Solomon had been destroyed, as had the city of Jerusalem. The Jews returned to their land from Babylon and began to rebuild both the city and the temple. But when some of these Jews began to celebrate the rebuilding of the temple, others began to weep:
10 When the builders established the Lord’s temple, the priests, ceremonially attired and with their clarions, and the Levites (the sons of Asaph) with their cymbals, stood to praise the Lord according to the instructions left by King David of Israel. 11 With antiphonal response they sang, praising and glorifying the Lord:
“For he is good;
his loyal love toward Israel is forever.”
All the people gave a loud shout as they praised the Lord when the temple of the Lord was established. 12 Many of the priests, the Levites, and the leaders – older people who had seen with their own eyes the former temple while it was still established – were weeping loudly, and many others raised their voice in a joyous shout. 13 People were unable to tell the difference between the sound of joyous shouting and the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people were shouting so loudly that the sound was heard a long way off (Ezra 3:10-13).
When the foundations for the new temple were laid, people could envision the completion of the temple. But the old timers remembered the splendor and glory of the former temple, as this one paled in comparison, and thus they wept. Those who had not seen the first temple rejoiced. And thus we read of a mixture of weeping and rejoicing.
Haggai is written to encourage these Jews to finish the construction of the temple, but his words have a much more distant application as well, just as our author points out. The glory of the second temple appeared to be inferior to that of the first, but the true glory of the temple is that it is God’s dwelling place among His people. God will shake all creation, and the result will be that the nations will come to God’s dwelling place with all their wealth. The latter glory after this “shaking” will vastly surpass the former glory of the first temple.
I believe that our author is contrasting the greater glory of Mount Zion with the former glory of Mount Sinai. So, too, he contrasts the “shaking” of Sinai with the “shaking” of Haggai. There is to be a future shaking, when the old will be “shaken out” and the new will be brought in. The new will have much greater glory than the old. And the new will last forever.
Do these Hebrew saints have a strong attraction to Jerusalem and to Herod’s temple? Does there appear to be little glory in the simplicity of New Testament worship – often meeting in houses, and with its symbols being bread and wine? Mount Zion is ahead! And the glory of Mount Zion far surpasses that of Sinai. And Mount Zion will be an “unshakable” kingdom, which will never pass away or diminish in its glory.
So, if our kingdom – Mount Zion – is a greater kingdom, with greater glory, and it is “unshakable,” then the readers of this great epistle should not be so easily “shaken” by the trials and tribulations of their day, or even of the greater difficulties that are soon to come their way. Looking for an “unshakable” kingdom should produce unshakable saints.
The final verses – verses 28 and 29 – are very important, as is the way they are translated:
28 Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; 29 for our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:28-29, NASB, emphasis mine).
28 So since we are receiving an unshakable kingdom, let us give thanks, and through this let us offer worship pleasing to God in devotion and awe. 29 For our God is indeed a devouring fire (Hebrews 12:28-29, NET Bible, emphasis mine).
28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us hold on to grace. By it, we may serve God acceptably, with reverence and awe; 29 for our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:28-29, CSB, emphasis mine).
Virtually every translation renders verse 28 as do the NET Bible and the NASB: “Let us show gratitude.” or “Let us give thanks.” But I think that we dare not set aside the meaning conveyed by the Holman Christian Standard Bible: “Let us hold on to grace.” There may be a double meaning intended here, but I don’t think we dare overlook the exhortation to hold firmly to grace, especially in the light of what we have just read:
See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God, that no one be like a bitter root springing up and causing trouble, and through him many become defiled (Hebrews 12:15, emphasis mine).
In addition to this, we will soon see the same word employed in chapter 13:
Do not be carried away by all sorts of strange teachings. For it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not ritual meals, which have never benefited those who participated in them (Hebrews 13:9, emphasis mine).
Then, too, there is the Book of Galatians, where Paul is strongly correcting the false teaching of the Judaizers, who sought to turn these believers from grace to law:
1 For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not be subject again to the yoke of slavery. 2 Listen! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you at all! 3 And I testify again to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4 You who are trying to be declared righteous by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace! 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait expectantly for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision carries any weight – the only thing that matters is faith working through love (Galatians 5:1-6, emphasis mine).
Since the kingdom for which we hope is an “unshakable” one, then we should not be shaken from the grace which alone will bring us there. Should we “give thanks” for this grace? Of course! But it is grace that I believe our author has primarily in view. It is on the basis of this grace that we will be able to worship God in both devotion and awe. And that “awe” is due, in part, to the fact that our God is the same God who revealed Himself and His law to the Israelites at Mount Sinai. He is indeed a devouring fire, and we should be humbled by the fact that it was grace that brought about the sprinkling of our Lord’s blood so that we could draw near to God in worship.
As we conclude this lesson, let me suggest a few major themes from our text and some of their implications.
First, seeing isn’t necessarily believing, but believing is seeing. In chapters 3 and 4, our author has emphatically underscored the fact that the first generation of Israelites to leave Egypt – that generation who were participants in the drama that was played out at Mount Sinai – failed by reason of unbelief and disobedience.16 The empirical evidence could not have been piled higher or deeper, and yet they did not believe. Those who lived during the days our Lord ministered on this earth kept asking for signs, but these signs did not make believers out of most. Those who believed God’s promises did so on the basis of God’s Word, thus those who believed “saw” the unseen certainties of eternal blessings.17 Faith is not based upon sight, but it gives us sight.
16 Therefore we do not despair, but even if our physical body is wearing away, our inner person is being renewed day by day. 17 For our momentary, light suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison 18 because we are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen. For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. 5:1 For we know that if our earthly house, the tent we live in, is dismantled, we have a building from God, a house not built by human hands, that is eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this earthly house we groan, because we desire to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed, after we have put on our heavenly house, we will not be found naked. 4 For we groan while we are in this tent, since we are weighed down, because we do not want to be unclothed, but clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 Now the one who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave us the Spirit as a down payment. 6 Therefore we are always full of courage, and we know that as long as we are alive here on earth we are absent from the Lord – 7 for we live by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 4:16-5:7).
Second, the spectacular and the sensational do not strengthen our faith and produce endurance as much as suffering does. There are some today who seem to desire to live from one miracle to the next, always depending upon some miraculous event or spectacular experience to keep them going. Job did not have that luxury, nor did Asaph in Psalm 73, or Joseph in his years of suffering, to mention just a few. The point our author is making in our text is that while the spectacular does not tend to produce endurance and perseverance, suffering does. That is why the readers are exhorted to endure their afflictions as divine discipline.18 It is suffering that deepens and enriches our faith, thus producing endurance:
2 “Remember the whole way by which he has brought you these forty years through the desert so that he might, by humbling you, test you to see if you have it within you to keep his commandments or not. 3 So he humbled you by making you hungry and then feeding you with unfamiliar manna. He did this to teach you that humankind cannot live by bread alone, but also by everything that comes from the Lord’s mouth. 4 Your clothing did not wear out nor did your feet swell all these forty years. 5 Be keenly aware that just as a parent disciplines his child, the Lord your God disciplines you. 6 So you must keep his commandments, live according to his standards, and revere him” (Deuteronomy 8:2-6).
25 Whom do I have in heaven but you?
I desire no one but you on earth.
26 My flesh and my heart may grow weak,
but God always protects my heart and gives me stability.
27 Yes, look! Those far from you die;
you destroy everyone who is unfaithful to you.
28 But as for me, God’s presence is all I need.
I have made the sovereign Lord my shelter,
as I declare all the things you have done (Psalm 73:25-28).
67 Before I was afflicted I used to stray off,
but now I keep your instructions.
68 You are good and you do good.
Teach me your statutes!
. . . 71 It was good for me to suffer,
so that I might learn your statutes.
72 The law you have revealed is more important to me
than thousands of pieces of gold and silver (Psalm 119:67-72).
1 Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of God’s glory. 3 Not only this, but we also rejoice in sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance, character, and character, hope. 5 And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us (Romans 5:1-5).
7 During his earthly life Christ offered both requests and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death and he was heard because of his devotion. 8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through the things he suffered. 9 And by being perfected in this way, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him (Hebrews 5:7-9).
This seems to be a lesson that Elijah needed to learn. Fire coming down from heaven at Mount Carmel was indeed spectacular, and it produced the appearance of momentary allegiance to God. But it didn’t last, as Elijah soon realized. Elijah was ready to throw in the prophetic towel, but God sent him back to Mount Sinai,19 where he learned an important lesson:
11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord. Look, the Lord is ready to pass by.” A very powerful wind went before the Lord, digging into the mountain and causing landslides, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the windstorm there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake, there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire, there was a soft whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his robe and went out and stood at the entrance to the cave. All of a sudden a voice asked him, “Why are you here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:11-13)
In a sense, Elijah was allowed to relive the spectacular events that Moses and the Israelites witnessed at Mount Sinai. But when these spectacular events were repeated for Elijah, God did not speak through them. Instead, He spoke to him through a soft whisper. God is not always to be found in the sensational. Indeed, in the earthly life and ministry of our Lord, it seems as though He purposely avoided the sensational. Did Elijah wish to turn the nation around through this sensational event on Mount Carmel? It was not to be. God had another way: He would use another prophet (Elisha), and two very unspiritual men – Hazael and Jehu – to chasten Israel. Hazael would be king of Syria, and Jehu would become king of Israel. Who would have thought God would have used such unlikely instruments to deal with His people?
How does God make Himself known today? Occasionally God may do something spectacular, such as He did at Pentecost.20 But in these days, the amazing thing is that God has chosen to work by means of weak men and women, and means that appear to be unimpressive and unsensational:
21 For since in the wisdom of God the world by its wisdom did not know God, God was pleased to save those who believe by the foolishness of preaching. 22 For Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks ask for wisdom, 23 but we preach about a crucified Christ, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. 24 But to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. 26 Think about the circumstances of your call, brothers and sisters. Not many were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were born to a privileged position. 27 But God chose what the world thinks foolish to shame the wise, and God chose what the world thinks weak to shame the strong. 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, what is regarded as nothing, to set aside what is regarded as something, 29 so that no one can boast in his presence (1 Corinthians 1:21-29).
But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that the extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us (2 Corinthians 4:7).
But he said to me, “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So then, I will boast most gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may reside in me (2 Corinthians 12:9).
How does God work today? I believe that we shall see how God normally works when we come to chapter 13, for there the Hebrew believers are instructed to persevere in their practice of showing brotherly love through entertaining strangers (13:2), identifying with those who are suffering for their faith (13:3), holding marriage in honor (13:4), and living lives in a way that is free from the love of money (13:5-6).
Third, being certain of an “unshakable” kingdom gives Christians the basis for an unshakable faith, even in the midst of difficult days. Our stability and security do not rest upon spectacular and sensational events, but on the assurance that we have an “unshakable” kingdom reserved for us in heaven, and this is based upon the Word and the work of our God in the person of His Son:
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he gave us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 that is, into an inheritance imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. It is reserved in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are protected through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 This brings you great joy, although you may have to suffer for a short time in various trials. 7 Such trials show the proven character of your faith, which is much more valuable than gold – gold that is tested by fire, even though it is passing away – and will bring praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 You have not seen him, but you love him. You do not see him now but you believe in him, and so you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, 9 because you are attaining the goal of your faith – the salvation of your souls (1 Peter 1:3-9).
What better reason to persevere than knowing that this life is short and that Mount Zion is eternal and unshakable? Added to this, we have been assured that the suffering and adversities we face in this life come from the hand of our loving Father, to strengthen our faith and promote perseverance.
1 Copyright © 2009 by Robert L. Deffinbaugh. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 32 in the series, Near to the Heart of God – A Study of the Book of Hebrews, prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on April 19, 2009. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit.
2 See also Exodus 19:16-22; 20:18-21; Deuteronomy 4:11-12; 5:23-27.
3 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: net.bible.org.
4 In addition to our text in Hebrews, read Exodus 19 and 20 and Deuteronomy 4 and 5.
5 The repetition of the term “endurance” is deliberate because it occurs three times, in one form or another, in verses 1-3, and once again in verse 7.
6 The NIV also drops the “for” in verse 25.
8 See Hebrews 11:1, 13-26.
9 See Exodus 19:12-25.
10 Hebrews 11:9-16.
11 “Innumerable” (ESV); “thousands upon thousands” (NIV); “millions” (NJB); “countless thousands” (NLB).
12 See Hebrews 7:1—10:18.
13 See Revelation 5:9-10 above.
14 We should not forget Stephen’s answer to this charge in Acts 7:44-50, which only served to add fuel to the fire, resulting in his death.
15 See Matthew 24:2; Mark 13:2; Luke 21:6.
16 See, for example, Hebrews 3:16-19; 4:2.
17 See Hebrews 11:8-10, 13.
18 Hebrews 12:7.
19 Mount Horeb is another name for Mount Sinai. See Deuteronomy 4:10, 15; 5:2.
20 See Acts 2.