Citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem
For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest 19 and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. 20 For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
Hebrews is written with a pastoral purpose. The Hebrew Christians addressed, due to persecution and perhaps for other reasons, were now tempted to return to the world they had left – the world of Judaism. Perhaps as persecution threatened Judaism seemed a safe haven. Perhaps, in one sense, they had never really left Judaism behind. They seemed content to stick at the rudimentary issues the gospel shared with Judaism and were reluctant to progress to distinctive gospel truths that would wean them away from Judaism. (Hebs 5:11-6:8).
For these Hebrew believers the temptation was to find the familiar solid realities of the temple and its sacrifices more real than their Christian faith where all was invisible and intangible requiring a robust faith (Ch 11). Rituals and aesthetics are often a substitute for spiritual realities. The writer writes to show them that what seems tangible and real is really not so solid or even touchable (Sinai) and that the really tangible and substantial things are those revealed to faith through the gospel. He writes to demonstrate that there is a comprehensiveness and solidity to Christ and his accomplishment alongside which Judaism was only a pale shadow . In fact, as we shall see, the experience of knowing God in Judaism was quite different to that of Christianity.
Given this background it is unsurprising that the letter, which is a kind of sermon, highlights the many ways Christ is ‘better’ than the law, the basis of Judaism. In Christ, there is a ‘great salvation’ that surpasses the law. Gospel eclipses law.: law points to gospel (Roms 3:21). We should notice that the gospel revelation is Christ: God his spoken finally in his son (1:2). Paul said in Romans that the gospel of God was ‘concerning his son’. And so, in Hebrews, Christ in his superior glories is revealed as the object of faith.
The last contrast between law and gospel in the letter appears in ch 12 and is framed in terms of two mountains – Sinai and Zion.
These verses are a kind of climax to the writer’s argument. They contain the last ‘better’ in Hebrews; Christ’s blood speaks a better word than that of Abel v24.
When Israel left Egypt they travelled to the mountain of Sinai. It was where they received the law or the old covenant on which Judaism was based. It is of Sinai that the writer speaks in v18-21. He does not name the mountain giving greater emphasis to Mt Zion which he does name. Sinai was a terrifying experience for Israel as it must be when a holy God encounters a sinful people. In fact, meeting was impossible. The mountain trembled with the majestic voice of God (v26). The mountain seems almost volcanic. The presence of God was known in blazing fire, darkness, gloom and tempest. Moreover, although it was a mountain that could be touched, they were forbidden to touch it on pain of death (Ex 19:12,13). Even an animal that touched it was to be stoned; Sinai was a deadly place (2 Cor 3). Moses we are told trembled with fear. God’s voice was heard from the top of the mountain in a voice that the people at the bottom of the mountain could not bear to hear. Probably the writer refers to the tabernacle rather than temple because it was more closely associated with Sinai and law. Sinai revealed the relationship to come. The tabernacle however physical and tangible did not bring the people near to God rather it emphasised distance. Tabernacle and temple served to keep God separate from his people rather than bringing him near.
Sinai revealed what the covenant of law was like for a sinful people. Here was the covenant to which the Hebrews were tempted to return. It was about dread and fear and death and a God who is distant. Perhaps they had forgotten this. However, Sinai was not the end of the journey for Israel when they left Egypt. It was a stopping point along the way. Their final destination was another mountain, a mountain that God had chosen (Ex 15:13.17). They journeyed from Sinai to Mt Zion. Zion was the end point, the final goal. The place of completion. And Zion is a completely different experience; it is a place of joy and festivity.
Israel’s journey from Sinai to Zion models the journey from Judaism to Christianity. God’s end-point was not Judaism it was Christianity. In their journey of faith the Hebrew Christians have left Sinai and arrived at Mt Zion – why would they want to return to Sinai?
What does it mean to have come to Mount Zion?
The picture of angels in festal array is a cue. If Sinai is fear and trembling then Mt Zion is by vivid contrast a place of celebration and holy joy. Angels were considered to be involved in the giving of the law (Acts 7:53; Hebs 2:2). Their presence added weight to it. But Zion has angels too; innumerable angels are involved in heavenly celebration. They are filled with joy. If angels sing then their song is joyful celebration of the triumph of the lamb and the blessings he has bought (Rev 5).
Mount Zion was the place where God resided. It was Mount Zion not Mount Sinai where God made his home (Ex 15:17). Mount Zion was the place of grace, of divine choice, where God would dwell among his people (Ps 78:70-72). In Sinai he was distant, at Mount Zion he was near. It was at Mt Zion he commanded the blessing even life forevermore (Ps 133:3; 132:13-18). When David brought the ark to Jerusalem there was great joy (2 Sam 6). God was among his people. Mt Zion of course was the city of God – the city of the living God. Sinai brought the threat of death but the God of Zion was the living God who gave life to its citizens.
Of course, OT earthly Zion failed to realise all it promised because of sin – the sin of a broken law often brought judgement; Sinai was always in the background. God did not dwell openly with his people but only behind a thick curtain in the temple. However, earthly Zion pointed in its frailty to the heavenly Zion in the future. The Jerusalem of the future is described by the OT prophets and psalms as a place of joy and blessing (Ps 48, 132; Isa 54, 60). The prophets describe a heavenly city. It is the heavenly Jerusalem that is the final home of God’s people not the present Jerusalem, which Paul declared in his day to be in slavery (Gals 4:25); the Jerusalem of this present age can never the eschatological Zion for it belongs to an age that ends in death. The Jerusalem that is God’s city is the heavenly Jerusalem; it already exists in heaven (11:16) It is the mother city of believers Gals 4:26). It is the city to which OT believers travelled (11:10), a city built not by man but by God. OT believers and prophets saw beyond the earthly city to a city which had foundations whose builder and maker is God (Cf. Isa 54). It is to that city that the gospel has brought the Hebrew Christians. This is the city that John sees in Revelation having the glory of God and coming down out of heaven from God (Rev 21,22).
Of course, in one sense they, and we, like the OT saints, are still travelling to this city (13:14). Here we have no lasting city but seek one that is to come (13:14); However, through the salvation in Christ by the Spirit a foretaste of future glory is experienced. In one sense we have already come to this place of salvation joy; faith in gospel realities has given us ‘the substance of things hoped for’. When we trusted in Christ we were registered as citizens of this city; our names were placed in the lamb’s book of life (Rev 21:27; Lk 10:10; Phil 3:20; Ps 87). This heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, is the home of the assembly of firstborn ones; the many sons Christ is bringing to glory (2:10-13). Their names are enrolled there (Ps 87; Phil 3:20). In one sense of course a city is its people. I take it the assembly of first born ones is a reference in the first instance to the NT church. Israel is called God’s firstborn. Christ, the true Israel, is God’s firstborn (Roms 8:29, Ps 89:27; Hebs 1:5,6), his heir, and all who belong to him share in his privilege and status (Roms 8:17, 29). The law created a spirit of slavery but the gospel brings us into the full liberty of sons (Roms 8:15). In a sense the church is already in heaven – seated with Christ in heavenly places (Eph 2:6). Our calling is heavenly (3:1).
We have come also come to God the judge of all. Zion is of course the city of the living God and vibrates with his life (Isa 42:13). We may think that God the judge strikes an ominous note and to some extent it does; it does if we think joy means freedom from restraint. God is holy and righteous whether at Sinai or Zion. He is enthroned in Zion from which he judges (Ps 9:7-11; Rev 20 Cf. Ps 122:5). The difference between Sinai and Zion does not lie in God, it lies in us. Zion’s children are redeemed. They have been deeply cleansed and so for believers God’s throne is a throne of grace and it is in grace God, as a Father, disciplines his children (4:16, 12:4-11). We must not think God becomes soft in the new covenant or in some sense more tolerant of sin. Salvation does not mean we are free to live as we will. No the difference is that those who belong to the new covenant, have their sins forgiven, have his law written in their hearts, and know their God as was not possible in Law; God is is not a terror to them but like their Lord they can commit their cause to him who judges righteously (1 Pet 2:23). In the eternal city sin will be no more and Jerusalem will be the thing of beauty she was always intended and the joy of the whole earth (Ps 48:2l. Isa 52:1)
If the ‘assembly of the firstborn ones’ refers to the NT church then ‘the spirits of just men made perfect’ surely refers to OT saints. ‘Perfection’ is not moral perfection in Hebrews. After all, Jesus was made perfect and this was hardly moral improvement (2:10; 5:9). Perfection seems to mean to be complete or fully developed – like adult maturity. It is something like arriving at that for which you were intended. In the gospel God’s full salvation has been initiated. OT saints lived before the arrival of Christ, before the arrival of the kingdom, and before complete salvation. Only when Christ had achieved salvation could OT saints enter into the full benefits of his work. Only then could they be made perfect for a death occurred redeeming them from transgressions under the first covenant (9:15). And so this city is the home of righteous believers made perfect. In the consummation all believers, OT and NT, perfected by the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, will constitute the New Jerusalem – the bride of the lamb.
Lastly, we come to he who is the foundation stone of this city and the means of all its blessings – the mediator of the New Covenant, Jesus. The old covenant of Sinai with its thunderings, the law, gives way to the new covenant in Jesus. It is not a covenant of demand but supply. Obedience is written on the heart not on tablets of stone. It is a covenant where sins are forgiven to be remembered no more. All within its boundaries will know the Lord (Hebs 8). It is a covenant of life not death.
Finally, and in one sense oddly, since Jesus has been preeminent in the letter, we are brought to Jesus; the new covenant and its mediator Jesus. But perhaps not so odd. We finish with the foundation on which all is based. This is a climax not a codicil. Here we have the source of all the joys of the new Jerusalem. In the Old Covenant blood was sprinkled on the book of the covenant, the people and even the tabernacle and its vessels; most things were purified by blood. The New Covenant was no less based on blood shed and applied. The sprinkled blood of the new covenant makes it possible for redeemed sinners to live in the presence of God; heaven itself has been purified and prepared by blood for sinners to enter (9:23-28). The New Covenant takes us into heaven itself.
Presently we enter the heavenly sanctuary. Ultimately we will live in the heavenly city. Both happen because of the blood of Christ. Christ’s blood, the blood of a unique sacrifice. – human, voluntary and perfect – makes a new world teeming with redeemed people possible. Christ’s shed blood differed from the blood of others. His death was murder to be sure but it did not call for vengeance. Abel’s blood (the first man murdered) called out for vengeance. The blood of many murdered since has done the same. Christ’s blood cries ‘forgiveness’. It was a ‘better word’. This is the last time ‘better’ is used in Hebrews. Hebrews is clear that no animal sacrifice could atone for sin, cleanse the conscience and give access to God or make anyone a citizen in the heavenly city. Only the willing sacrifice of God’s Son, as of a lamb without blemish or spot’ could accomplish eternal redemption (10:1-10; 9:11,12). Christians have a home in the heavenly realm of the world to come because Christ died and has gone to heaven as their forerunner to prepare a place for them (Hebs 6:20; John 14:1-6).. In the New Jerusalem there will be no temple for the whole city is a temple. God’s immediate presence and glory will be experienced by all (Rev 21).
Who, upon knowing Zion would want to return to Sinai? This is the question those with an itch for Judaism must face. They have come to grace, why go back to rituals. They have come to joy why go back to fear? The warning goes out nevertheless to respond in faith to the message. When the law was given the mountain shook. God intends one day to shake both earth and heaven when everything will be removed and only that which is of eternal value through the blood of Christ will remain. We who believe to the saving of our souls have through Christ, a kingdom that cannot be shaken. At the giving of the law the earth was shaken, or at least Sinai. At the Second Coming earth and heavens are shaken. The escalation in shaking shows the greater importance of the gospel message. Once again God will visit earth in the person of his Son, Jesus and only God’s Kingdom in Christ will remain.
Meanwhile: The lord has founded Zion and in her the afflicted find refuge Isa 42:32.
How do we keep ourselves from falling away from faith? We fix our eyes on Jesus and see in him a beauty that surpasses any form of the world that we begin to see attractive.