The Two Mountains (Hebrews 12:18-24)
How do you convince Jewish Christians to remain faithful to Christ, when they are under tremendous pressure to abandon their faith for a Judaism without Jesus? One way you do it by showing that Judaism without Jesus is not a religion that provides for salvation from sin. And you do it by showing that Jesus does provide full and certain salvation because he is the Son of God who is also the true high priest before God who accomplished redemption and atonement. That is what our author has been doing throughout this epistle.
He comes back to that now in the verses before us, and the way he does this is to use a Biblical metaphor that contrasts Mount Sinai to Mount Zion. Both of these mountains were of tremendous significance to the Israelites. On Mount Sinai the people of Israel received the Law of God. Mount Zion, the location of Jerusalem, was the symbol of the nation of Israel and its strength. It was also a symbol for the eternal city, not Rome but of heaven. You see this in Galatians, where the apostle Paul contrasts the earthly Jerusalem with the heavenly Jerusalem: the former symbolizes Sinai and the Old Covenant and the latter the New Covenant (Gal. 4:21-31). You also see this in the book of Revelation, where heaven comes down to earth in the form of the heavenly, or new, Jerusalem (Rev. 21:1, ff).
You will also remember that the gathering of the Israelite nation before Sinai was on the front end of their wilderness journeying. During the wilderness era, the thirty-eight years following their refusal to obey God to go in and conquer Canaan, most of the men perished. We’ve seen that recounted in chapters 3 and 4 of this epistle. Even though they received the Law, they remained in unbelief, and they suffered the consequences of God’s wrath. They never entered into God’s rest. So you can see how Sinai can be a symbol for judgment, not salvation. That is how it is pictured here.
It is not that God’s Law is bad. As the apostle Paul will put it to the Romans (Rom. 7:9-13), God’s law is holy. We are the problem. We are sinners, and when you put sinners who want self-sovereignty in front of the demands of God’s Law, what happens is the push-back of rebellion and more sin. But what this shows is that Sinai is insufficient to save. It can reveal to a man his sin but apart from a Mediator, apart from a true sacrifice for sin, he will perish. The author does not want them to go back to a Christless Judaism, for that would be to abandon Jerusalem for Sinai. Instead, he wants them to go to Mount Zion (indeed, he is hopeful that is where they are already at!), where Jesus is the mediator of a new covenant.
Now we can read these verses and think that they are not really relevant for us. We might think or say that we really don’t care about either of these mountains. Like the Samaritan woman who encountered our Savior at Jacob’s well, we might have our own mountain at which we worship (cf. John 4:20). But what I want to argue this morning is that everyone will face one of these two mountains. You will either end up at Sinai or you will end up on Mount Zion. I am of course speaking figuratively, but that for which the figures stand are of infinite consequence to you and me.
The text of verses 18-24 is clearly divided into two parts. In verses 18-21, the readers are told that they have not come to Sinai, and what follows are seven things that characterize Sinai. Then in verses 22-24, they are told that they have come to Zion, and what follows that are seven things that characterized Zion. There could not be any greater difference between two mountains!
Now what does it mean here to come? Every other time this word is used in this epistle, it is a reference to drawing near to God. In 4:16, it is coming boldly to the throne of grace. In 7:25, it is coming to God by
Jesus. In 10:1 it is coming to the worship of God in the old tabernacle. In 10:22 is drawing near to God “in full assurance of faith.” In 11:6, it is coming to God by faith. So the coming here in verses 18 and 22, is a coming before God. And so here is what I want to argue for in this message: that these two mountains show us that we will and must appear before God, either at Sinai or at Zion, and that Zion is infinitely to be preferred to Sinai. But the only way we can go from Sinai to Zion is through Jesus. It follows, then, that it is incredible folly to abandon Jesus for that would put us back at Sinai; and, on the other hand, if we find ourselves at Sinai, we should make our way to Jesus as quickly as we can.
With these thoughts in mind, I want to make the following observations on this text.
First, where we think we are going and where we are actually going are not necessarily the same thing.
The Hebrew Christians who were thinking about leaving the Christian faith for a safer Judaism might have thought this was a good choice. For them, it meant leaving a religion whose legality was in doubt for one which had the protection of the Roman Empire. It meant leaving a religion with a huge credibility deficit for one which was at least tolerated. It meant leaving stigma and persecution behind for acceptance and safety. All in all, a good choice! But the author of Hebrews wants them to realize that they are leaving Zion for Sinai. They are leaving Jerusalem for judgment.
There is a similar pressure upon Christians today. One of the complaints about the Christian faith is that it insists upon certain things: a certain set of values that are now fundamentally at odds with modern, American culture, and a certain set of beliefs that are seen to be outdated and unscientific. And so people leave to embrace the cult of modernity and they think they have made a great choice. Now they can be more inclusive and loving, as the world sees it. They are embraced instead of shunned. They are honored instead of hated (where is all that love in the world, again?).
And so people leave Mount Zion; they leave the Christian faith. And they set out for a mountain of their own imagination, of their own creation. Or at least they think they do. But they will only end up at Sinai. And the reason they will end up there is because at the end of the day they do not get to choose reality. Only God gets to do that.
Now it is true that if this world is the product of undirected natural processes, if there is no God, then life truly has no meaning. And if that’s the case, the only meaning there is, is the meaning that you arbitrarily assign to it (although, you can’t think too hard about that, or you will realize that your “meaning” is really meaningless). Or, to put it another way, there are no mountains. Nothing is fixed, but we live upon ocean, ever changing and always unstable. But why should we think that? Why should we believe that there is no God? Why should we believe there is no meaning? I know the common answer to that is that evolution proves this. But how so? Apart from the problems with evolution – and more scientists are beginning to see that the neo-Darwinian synthesis has too many problems to be sustainable as a viable theory for the complexity of life on earth (witness guys like the Yale scientist David Gelernter) – the fact of the matter is that it is fundamentally illogical to think that unguided processes can produce order and logic and life. It is not science that gives us this; it is atheism, which is fundamentally a philosophical position, not a scientific one.
We don’t live, in any case, in a world where people really think that there are no mountains. Everyone believes in some sort of absolutes. But the thing is that if there are mountains – if there is this absolute reality out there – then you don’t get to define it. Only the one who made the mountains gets to define it. Only someone who stands outside the created order, who is not a piece of furniture in the universe, can tell us where the mountains are and what they mean.
And that is God. And God has spoken; he has spoken in history and in the person of his Son. He has spoken in the Bible – we know this because Jesus – God’s Son – accepted the authority of the Old Testament and gave authority to the writers of the New. And he tells us that there are only two mountains. Our text tells us there are only two mountains. If you leave Zion, you will only find yourself at Sinai. There are no other options.
Second, Sinai is reality apart from Christ. And it is only judgment, darkness, and fear. In verses 18-21, the author recreates for us the experience of Israel gathered before Sinai. The “mount” in verse 18, is Mount Sinai. There are seven aspects of their experience that he highlights in these verses. First, there was the fact that it “might be touched.” What is meant by this? When you compare what is said about Mount Sinai with what is said about Mount Zion, you will see that many of the realities referred to that characterized Zion are not yet tangible. The innumerable company of angels, the names written in heaven, the spirits of men made perfect. That doesn’t mean they aren’t real, but it does mean that they are not yet tangible. Faith is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). So I think one of the points being made here is that Sinai represents the tangible, the present order of things. But it is an order that is passing away (cf. 26-27). And it is passing away because of sin. Death is a part of the warp and woof of this world because of human sin and rebellion. It is why the apostle Paul said that “we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18). And that’s what this world is apart from Christ; it can be touched, yes, but it is passing away. If you want to grasp it, go ahead, but you will only have to give it up.
Second, Mount Sinai “burned with fire.” In Exodus 19, we read, “And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount. And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire: and the smoke therefor ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly” (17-18). Fire in the Bible is very often the symbol of the judgment of God. Fire can purify, yes; but it can also consume. It purifies gold; it burns up chaff. And it will consume all who are outside of Christ. His “fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Mt. 3:12). It is not for no reason that hell is described in terms of fire. Even so, Mount Sinai burned with fire. If you are outside of Christ, this is what you will face – though not the fire that quickly passes away and burns itself up, but the fire that is unquenchable.
Third and fourth, we are told that Mount Sinai was shrouded in “blackness” and “darkness.” This is emphasized in Deut. 4:11 – “And ye came near and stood under the mountain; and the mountain burned with fire unto the midst of heaven, with darkness, clouds, and thick darkness.” King Solomon said that God said that he would dwell in thick darkness (2 Kings 8:12). But it is darkness only because he who is light cannot reveal himself to sinful men without consuming them. It is our sin that brings the darkness. It was darkness that covered Egypt in the plagues, and it was a darkness that could be felt. Even so, our sin brings darkness. Our sin separates from God. Our sin blinds us to the glory of God. Thus it is that the apostle tells us that to walk in sin is to walk in darkness and to walk with God is to walk in the light (1 John 1). Darkness is again a sign of God’s judgment.
Fifth, there was a “tempest,” or a whirlwind. This was no quiet fire, nor peaceful darkness. It was a storm of fire and smoke and darkness. The mountain was shaking. It was as if the entire landscape transformed suddenly and apocalyptically into a furnace to burn away all the enemies of God.
Sixth, we are alerted to the “sound of a trumpet.” “And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice” (Exod. 19:19). The trumpet was calling the people to attention. There was no avoiding this confrontation. There was no ignoring it. This was not a trumpet call you could pretend not to hear. God’s judgment is like that. The Lord may allow people to go on in their sins for a time. He may give them mercy for many years in fact. But there is coming a Day of Reckoning. There is coming a Day of Judgment, and the wicked will not escape it.
Seventh, there was “the voice of words.” Now this might seem anticlimactic in contrast to fire and tempest. But the point is that, whatever else they saw, the children of Israel didn’t see the form of God: “And the LORD spake unto you out of the midst of the fire: ye heard the voice of words, but saw no similitude; only ye heard a voice” (Deut. 4:12). This is not only to prevent them from future idolatry; it was also to underline their distance from God. This is further reinforced in the rest of verse 19 and also 20 (of Heb. 12): “which voice they that heard intreated [begged] that the word should not be spoken to them any more: for they could not endure that which was commanded, And if so much as a beast touch the mountain, it shall be stoned, or thrust through with a dart.” The voice of God is frightening apart from Christ, for it will finally convince us of our sins when we have spent our entire lives denying it. Those who spend their days denying their need of salvation will one day have their mouths shut as they are arraigned in the presence of the living God (cf. Rom. 3:19).
Now to understand just how awful this experience was, listen to the testimony of Moses: “And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake” (21). This was Moses, the man of God. Here was a holy man, a chosen man. And yet he did not look at this as if it were some fireworks display. He didn’t find this exciting. He found it utterly terrifying. What makes us think we will find Sinai any different?
Listen, if you’ve had even a small realization of just how holy God is and how utterly exposed you are to his wrath, you would be right where Moses is. And if you’ve ever experienced this, thank God. So many people today shrug this off. They say that it is a bad thing that Christians tell others about the judgment of God and that they should be afraid of it. But if you are not afraid of it now, you will be later, only then it will be too late. You ought to thank God for his mercy if you have ever found yourself in front of Mount Sinai. For it is only when you realize that, that you will flee for mercy under the refuge of Mount Zion.
Do you know that you are a sinner? Do you know what that means? If you think you’re alright, why do you think that? What standard are you judging yourself by? Your own? What makes you think God will use your standard? My friend, God has revealed his standard. You will find it trumpeted on Mount Sinai. You will find it in his law, not in the licentious libertinism of our day and age. You will find it in a law that judges your motives and your thoughts and your dreams as well as your words and actions. Think about it: how embarrassed and humiliated would you be if everyone else could see your thoughts? What makes you think, then, that God – whose word will penetrate to the very depths of your inner self – will think you are okay? I can tell you on the basis of God’s own word, he will not! You are there before Sinai, and you will not solace for your fears or atonement for your sins. You will only find darkness, fire, tempest, and judgment.
Third, Zion is reality in Christ. It is this reality that is portrayed for us in verses 22-24. You see that in verse 24, where Jesus is the mediator of the new covenant. There are seven things about Sinai we should fear; even so there are seven things about Zion we should cherish.
First, Zion is called “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” When you come to God through Jesus, this is what you come to. This is the city that Abraham looked for: “But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city” (Heb. 11:16). Whereas Sinai points to the present order of things, Zion points us to the future. It points us to heaven. It points us to a place: “I go to prepare a place for you,” our Lord told his disciples, “And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also” (Jn. 14:2-3). This is not a city that you come to apart from Christ; you only get to this through him (6).
Cities in our day have a pretty bad rap, not all of it undeserved, because they can be places where people are not safe, where there is more pollution, more poverty, more trash, more disease, less space, and less privacy. But in the ancient world, you were generally safer in a city. Cities had walls; villages didn’t. When our Lord says that he is preparing for us a place in a city, we should not think so much of the bad things we associate with the modern metropolis, but with a sense of belonging and safety. That is what our Lord provides to those in Christ.
And because it is the city of the living God, we can be sure that we will be forever safe there. In the book of Revelation, when Satan is released from his prison and gathers his armies together to fight against the Lord, they “compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city.” What was the result? Did their siege work? Is the city of God safe? Of course it is! “And fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them. And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Rev. 20:9- 10).
What is this city like? The apostle John tells us: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Rev. 21:1-4). This is very unlike Sinai! Sinai was a place to flee from; this is a place to long for, to hope for, to anticipate, a place given to us by Christ.
Second, Zion is the place of “an innumerable company of angels.” Now at this point, I need to address a translation issue. The KJV puts “general assembly” with “church of the firstborn.” However, if you look at the structure of the text, the word “and” seems to indicate where the commas should go (with the exception of the first, which seems to act in the sense of “even”). Hence, the seven things associated with Zion are (1) the city of the living God, the new Jerusalem, (2) and the innumerable company of angels in festal gathering (the meaning of the term “general assembly”), (3) and the church of the firstborn, (4) and God the judge of all, (5) and the spirits of just men made perfect, (6) and Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, (7) and the blood of sprinkling. So I take “general assembly” with the “innumerable company of angels.”
There are two things mentioned about the angels. First, they are an innumerable company. The heavenly armies of God are not thin in the ranks. Second, they are gathered in heaven in joyful worship: the term “general assembly” is the Greek word panegyris and refers to “a joyful gathering in order to celebrate a festival”1 – hence we could translate this as “an innumerable company of angels in festal gathering.” Again, this is a stark contrast to Sinai. And although angles were viewed as being at Sinai (cf. Ps. 68:17), they were not there to celebrate but to give the law. Here they are celebrating over the works of God in redemption: “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth” (Lk. 15:10). Heaven is not a place of gloom and darkness and fear, but a place of worship and joy and celebration.
We need to remember that we come to this when we come to Christ. The church on earth is united with the angels in heaven in the worship of the living God. It is easy to forget that, especially when we are small and of no account in this world. Imagine how small and powerless the members of a small house church in Rome must have felt! But we are reminded here that every Christian church, no matter how small, is an outpost for the kingdom of heaven in this world. We have angels on our side. Greater is he that is with us than he that is in the world. And when we worship in our closets and in our families and in our Sunday gatherings, we are joining the angels in festal gathering in heaven. Don’t forget that. And in particular, don’t run from that back to Sinai.
Third, we are told that we come to the “church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven.” Whether the word “church” here is used in a technical sense or in an informal sense, the reality is that this is pointing to believers who are viewed as belonging to one another because they belong to Christ. They are the “church of the firstborn” because they belong to him who is the firstborn from the dead (Col. 1:18). Whereas Esau gave up his rights as the firstborn, the church can never lose its inheritance. That is the idea in the phrase “which are written in heaven.” What is written in heaven is written and cannot be erased. Again, we are reminded of the security that we have in Jesus, not just a temporal security, not just something that gives you earthly pleasures and comforts, but an eternal security which cannot be taken away.
Fourth, when you come to God through Jesus, you come to “God the Judge of all.” Now this might at first seem out of place, especially considering the contrast with Sinai, and especially given what has just been said about festal gathering. We don’t usually associate judgment with joy! But we must also remember that the church on earth is a persecuted church. Like their Lord, believers will be despised and rejected of men, whether you live in a religious world (like Jesus did) or in an irreligious one (like we do). And that means that the church will suffer injustice in the present. The believers in Egypt have been treated as second class citizens for over a thousand years. We must not think that if we just communicate the gospel carefully and winsomely that the world will recognize the wisdom of God. It won’t; it will hate it and persecute it. In the West, we have been living in a bubble that I think is bursting, and it will shock us if we are not prepared to accept the fact that in this world we will not always be treated fairly. So it is therefore a great comfort to know that the God of the church is the God of justice. That the throne of God will not only be the place at which the Lord says, “Come to me” to his elect, but at which the Lord will say, “Go away from me” to the wicked. We may not have justice now, but we will have it in the end – perfectly and finally. God will have the last word, not men.
Fifth, we come “to the spirits of just men made perfect.” If “church” is a reference to the people of God presently on earth, this is a reference to the redeemed who are already in heaven. They are just because they are justified by the righteousness of Jesus Christ and they perfect because every moral and ethical and spiritual flaw has been cast out. To be in heaven is to know nothing more of sin. It is to be done with imperfection forever.
At the same time, the fact that this is a reference to “spirits” is also an indication that they have not yet been glorified. That will happen when their souls are reunited with their bodies in the resurrection. And yet, even though they are not yet glorified, this text does indicate that between death and the Second Coming of our Lord, the elect do not merely sleep – no, they are in heaven with God the Judge of all, and with the innumerable company of angels. It wouldn’t make sense to say we come to a bunch of spirits in sleep. Rather, these are the souls of departed saints who are presently enjoying being with Christ in the Paradise of God.
Sixth, we come to “Jesus the mediator of the new covenant.” Zion was the capitol city of Israel and Judah under David and his heirs. Jesus is of course the ultimate Son of David who even now “holds his throne and sits in judgment there.” To come to Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem is to come to Christ. And it is to come to him as the mediator of the new covenant, and to find in him the fulfillment of all its promises. The law of God written in the heart, having God as our God, having the forgiveness of sins, these blessings come to us in Christ and because of who he is and what he has done.
Finally, we come to “the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.” In 11:4, Abel speaks of the faithfulness of God to those who trust in him. But this is different here: this is a reference to Genesis 4:10, where Abel’s blood is crying to God for vengeance after his murder by Cain. So when we read that the blood of sprinkling (which is the blood of Jesus, the fulfillment of all the Old Testament sacrifices) speaks better things than that of Abel, we should interpret this to mean that the blood of Jesus doesn’t cry out for judgment, it cries out for mercy and grace. In fact, he becomes the mediator of the new covenant by his blood, so that it is because Jesus took the punishment in our place that we can get true peace with God.
So where are you? Are you at Sinai or are you at Zion? You will be at one or the other. If you think you can get into heaven on your own merit, if you think you can make it in because you are good enough, then you are at Sinai. Or you may think you don’t have to worry about Sinai or Zion – you are imagining yourself at a mountain of your own making. But the reality is that if you have not come to God by Jesus Christ, you are in front of Sinai. There is no salvation there, my friend, only judgment. There is no hope there, only darkness and gloom and tempest. We can only find salvation in Jesus Christ and in him alone.
Have you come to Zion? Then rejoice! And thank God for his grace, his sovereign grace, that brought you there.
1 William L. Lane, Hebrews 9-13 [WBC, vol. 47B], (Zondervan, 1991), p. 467.