A Glorious Privilege (Hebrews 12:18–24)

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Mountains in Scripture serve a significant role. Momentous events occur on mountains. It is supposed that Eden must have been elevated, since it was the source of four rivers. Noah’s ark rested on a mountaintop, from which humanity was recommissioned. Isaac was to be offered on a mountaintop. Mounts Ebal and Gerizim were significant places in terms of covenantal commitment. Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal atop Mount Carmel. The kingdom of God is likened to a mountain (Isaiah 2; Daniel 2). Jesus’ most famous sermon was the Sermon on the Mount, and His second most famous was preached from Mount Olivet. The Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel was issued atop a mountain in Galilee.

But perhaps the two most prominent of mountains in Scripture are Sinai and Zion. At Sinai, the law was given (Exodus 20), preceded by the inauguration of the covenant (Exodus 19). The blood-sprinkling ratification of the covenant occurred at foot of Sinai (Exodus 24). Technically speaking, it was at Sinai where the Hebrew nation was actually “created.”

Mount Zion was the once stronghold of the Jebusites (2 Samuel 5:1­–7), but David transformed it into the place for the Ark of the Covenant (instructions for which were given at Sinai), the dwelling place of God: Jerusalem. Mount Zion became the centre of the national life of God’s people. It became a place of sacrifice, worship, festivals and governance.

Both of these mountains were deeply significant to a Jewish nation; they still are, to many modern day Jews. They certainly were to first century Jews.

These two mountains were inseparable to the mind of a Hebrew. Apart from Sinai, there would be no Zion; apart from Zion, Sinai would be irrelevant. Keeping this before us helps us as we come to this final passage in Hebrews 12, which, in many ways, is the thematic climax of the epistle.

The writer has been arguing for the superiority of the new covenant (not “new” in time but rather “new” in the sense of being better) over the old covenant. This was the rub for first century Jews. To leave the old covenant for the new was radical. To move from an emphasis on the law (Sinai) to an emphasis on the gospel (spiritual Zion) as the way to draw near to God was a huge transformation of thinking. In fact, the entire concept of drawing near to God was a tough sell for the Jews.

For this reason, many were tempted to neglect so great salvation; they were tempted to drift away; they were tempted to draw back; they were tempted to drop out of the race. And therefore, this writer pastorally instructs and exhorts them to keep running the race that has been set before them. They are to look for grace for this race into which they have been entered by grace.

He now makes his final appeal. And he does so in his customary “for if” or “how much more” approach (v. 25; cf. 2:2; 4:8; 7:22; 8:7; 9:13–14; 10:26; 12:9).

The fundamental problem with unbelieving Jews is that they were obsessed with the material and therefore they missed the spiritual.

And connected with this was their fallacious self-righteousness. They truly thought that they could keep the Sinaitic law (Exodus 19:7–8). They relied on the old covenant to save them. But, of course, this was never the point of the old covenant (Galatians 3:21). They needed to journey from law to the glorious privileges of the gospel. This is the point of the passage.

In this study, we will begin to expound this theme. We will do so by sticking close to the text and noting the explicit contrast that the author makes between these two mountains. In doing so we will come to appreciate, I trust, the superiority of the new covenant over the old covenant; that is, the superiority of the gospel over that which merely, though vitally, points to our need for the gospel. As Thomas Boston notes, “the law lays open the wound [our sin], but it is the gospel that heals.” Or as John Newton poetically put it:

To run and work the law commands,
yet gives me neither feet nor hands.
But better news the gospel brings;
it bids me fly, and gives me wings.1

And because of this awareness, the believer in Jesus Christ will so live as to testify, “I want that mountain.”

Two Mountains

We will seek to apply this text practically below, but we must first understand what it teaches before we can do so.

The Old Covenant Mountain

Verses 18–21 focus on the old covenant mountain.

For you have not come to the mountain that may be touched and that burned with fire, and to blackness and darkness and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet and the voice of words, so that those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore. (For they could not endure what was commanded: “And if so much as a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned or shot with an arrow.” And so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I am exceedingly afraid and trembling.”)

(Hebrews 12:18–21)

Though the text does not specifically identify Mount Sinai, it is clear that this is what is being referenced. After all, the words are clearly from the scene recorded in Exodus 19:9–19; 20:18–21; Deuteronomy 4:9–14.

Background

During the exodus, God brought Israel from Egypt to Sinai. At Sinai, the nation was covenanted as God’s unique people (Exodus 19:5–8; Deuteronomy 4:5–8), God’s chosen possession. God was going to be present and they needed to prepare for it. His holiness was out of bounds. The people were not permitted to touch the mountain because God’s holiness manifested itself there.

When the people were prepared, God appeared.

A Terrifying Scene

Sinai was a physical mountain, which, if touched, would have resulted in death. According to our writer, Sinai was a mountain “that may be touched.” He is not contradicting the Exodus account, but simply noting that Sinai was a physical, material mountain. But to have touched it was dangerous and therefore forbidden (v. 20).

F. F. Bruce observes that “the mountain was so charged with the holiness of the God who manifested Himself there, that for man or beast to touch it meant certain death.”2

It is interesting that if an animal touched the holy mountain, it was to be killed with an arrow or stone. In other words, one was prohibited from touching the animal because the holiness would have been on the animal. This truly was a holy mountain.

Sinai was fiery, yet dark and gloomy. It “burned with fire” and was covered in “blackness and darkness and tempest.” As Dods observes, “The fire and smoke which manifested His presence at Sinai were but symbols of that consuming holiness that destroys all persistent inexcusable evil. It is God Himself who is the fire with which you have to do, not a mere physical, material, quenchable fire.”3

In summary, the establishment of the old covenant at Mount Sinai was in an atmosphere that was very foreboding.

Sinai was eerily loud because of “the sound of a trumpet.” Whether the angelic hosts were playing the horn section, I do not know. But one can imagine the eerie sound of shofars in a scene such as this.

The trumpet was not to invite but to warn the people. It was not very inviting at all.

“The voice of words” was ominous, and the people were fearful to approach, “so that those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore.” I don’t think we should see in this that the people heard articulate communication. They no doubt knew that communication was taking place, but they probably could not make out the exact form of the words. Nevertheless, they knew that God was talking, and that frightened them. It is as though they did not want to hear. Dods helpfully comments, “Those who at Sinai begged to be excused from hearing did so in terror of the manifestations of God’s presence. But this is taken both as itself rooted in ignorance of God and aversion, and also as the first manifestation of a refusal to listen which in the history of Israel was often repeated.”4

At Sinai, the inauguration of the old covenant was so intensely holy that the people could not endure it. “They could not endure what was commanded.”

The rest of v. 20—“And if so much as a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned or shot with an arrow”—is intended to convey the overriding sense that God is holy and therefore His (fallen) creation needs to keep its distance.

At Sinai, Moses himself was terrified by the scene. The writer makes this clear: “And so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I am exceedingly afraid and trembling.’”

There is no particular verse that we can specifically reference, but perhaps Deuteronomy 9:19 is in the mind of the writer. After all, it was while Moses was on Sinai that the people committed this idolatry. Moses would have been eyewitness to God’s holy wrath. And exceeding fear and trembling would certainly have been the expected response.

Summary

So, what can we conclude about this scene from Sinai, particularly with reference to the old covenant which God instituted there?

Sinai was gloomy. It was foreboding. It was alienating. It was daunting. It was temporal. It was distant. It was limited (in terms of access). Put yourself in the sandals of one of these Hebrews at the foot of Sinai. Is it any real wonder that they were afraid of being in God’s presence? Not to a thinking person; not to a person who was aware of their guilt as they stood in the presence of a holy God.

In Exodus 19, God was explicit about the people keeping their distance (vv. 19–24). God was very careful about the people maintaining a safe distance. God did not want these people to violate the boundaries that would bring about His need to destroy them. We see in Sinai both holiness and grace. Yet still, the distance between God and sinful man seems to be the unbridgeable gulf. Holiness, if I can reverently put it this way, had the upper hand on grace. A relationship was desired but righteous reconciliation had not been realised.

This is where everyone lives who, apart from God’s saving grace, boastfully proclaims, “All that the Lord has spoken [I] will do!” (Exodus 19:8). As Raymond Brown points out (and to which we will return later), “Under the old covenant the emphasis was on the infinite distance between God and man.”5 Therefore, Sinai should put into us the fear of God. But fear is not enough. We need another mountain.

This, of course, was the contemporary problem being addressed. These believers were being tempted to go back to Sinai. For many in Israel, the gospel of the new covenant was anything but good news. It appeared to be bad news at best and false news at worst, but these believers needed to keep marching to Zion.

The New Covenant Mountain

Verses 22–24 focus on the new covenant mountain.

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.

(Hebrews 12:22–24)

Clearly, with the words “but you have come to” (v. 22) following the passage that began with “for you have not come to” (v. 18), the writer intends a contrast; in fact, it is a dramatic contrast.

The words “have come to” are a significant and recurring theme in Hebrews and they speak of drawing near (see 4:16; 7:25; 10:1, 22; 11:6).

In the previous passage, what they drew near to (Sinai) did not get them very close. They drew near, but there was still an infinite distance. Again, this was always the purpose of the old covenant—including the whole tabernacle system. But under the new covenant, that infinite distance has been bridged by the Lord Jesus Christ, and it is therefore so much better!

We see this in the description given of the new covenant mountain of Mount Zion. Believers have journeyed from the Mount of Law to the Mount of Grace.

It is a Terrific (Triumphant) Scene

There are several things we should note about this terriffically triumphant scene.

First, Mount Zion is identified as a city. “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (cf. 11:8–10).

Of course, geopolitical Mount Zion was prominent to a Jew. After all, they had marched from Sinai towards Zion over a long course of history. It was there that the Ark came to rest permanently and where the temple was built—and then rebuilt, and rebuilt again! Zion was where the annual pilgrimages would end in the various festivals. Most importantly, it was at Zion that sacrifices were offered—including the most significant sacrifices, offered at the annual Passover and the annual Day of Atonement.

Mount Zion was a meaningful title given to Jerusalem under the old covenant, for the reasons given above. But here it is clear that there is another “city” meant, for this one is referred to as “the heavenly Jerusalem.”

This Mount, in contrast to Mount Sinai, is spiritual. I do not mean that it is not real; in fact, it is more real (for it lasts) than Sinai. Unlike Sinai, it is not limited to a particular GPS position. As the Jerusalem Bible paraphrases, “What you have come to is nothing known to the senses.”

With the arrival of the new covenant, geopolitical Zion would forever take a backseat to spiritual Zion, the true city of God.

You will remember that Hebrews 11 is largely focused on the theme of the city of God, the one that “has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (11:10). Abraham, long before both the old covenant and the new covenant, understood this.

The examples in that encouraging chapter were all, in some way, examples of those who believed beforehand on the promised Christ. And though some of them enjoyed the privileges of the earthly (temporal) city of God (Jerusalem), nevertheless it would seem the author’s point is that they were awaiting the city to which Abraham ultimately looked. They were looking forward to the day when God’s eternal city would be established by Christ under the new covenant. It is this city to which we Christians belong (vv. 27–28).

This city is invisible, yet it is far more real than any city that has ever existed. And one day it will be very visible.

We often speak about “marching to Zion.” There is truth in that. We live in the already-but-not-yet eschatologically. Nevertheless, the author here makes it abundantly clear that we have already arrived. His challenge is to help these Hebrew Christians see that the physical, geopolitical Mount Zion was not the be-all and end-all of mountains; rather, through Christ, the better Mediator, we have come to a far better mountain.

Spiritual Zion is a vital city. The author says that it is the city “of the living God,” which “emphasizes the thought that this city is no static affair; it is the city of a vital, dynamic, living Being, one who is doing things.”6

No doubt, at Mount Sinai it was clear that God was living, yet in the heavenly Jerusalem we have the sense that God is closely interacting with all that is taking place in the lives of its inhabitants. It is a city of abiding communion and community.

Spiritual Zion is a heavenly city. Clearly, “the heavenly Jerusalem” is the same as the New Jerusalem that comes down out of heaven to earth as recorded in Revelation 21:2, 10 (see Revelation 3:12). This is for which we pray (Matthew 6:9–10).

A city speaks of community, progress, fellowship and relationships. And heaven coming to earth speaks of God’s desire to dwell with His creation. This is a terrific scene!

We will delve into this later but don’t miss the truth that this New Jerusalem is fundamentally the church. And it is the church of all ages. What a glorious privilege to belong to this community of faith!

Second, Mount Zion is filled with angels—“an innumerable company of angels.” From several texts, we know that angels attended God’s presence at Sinai. But the mention of an “innumerable” group testifies to the glory of this Mount Zion. The writer has told us that angels are sent to “minister” to “those who will inherit salvation” (1:14). We can therefore conclude that, in this Mount Zion, God is caring for our every need. Though the concept of guardian angels may be an overworked and sentimentalised notion, we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. God cares for us and has provided His innumerable messengers to do so. But further, these angels ultimately serve the Lord. What a glorious scene of angels on every corner in the city serving our great God!

In summary, through the new covenant, we have been brought to, and entered already, a glorious place—a marvellous and miraculous mountain.

Third, Mount Zion is filled with all believers from throughout history. The writer speaks of “the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven.” This is an amazing revelation.

“General assembly” translates terms referring to a festive gathering or a mass meeting. “Church” means “a called out assembly,” and from what follows it is clear that it refers the “called out assembly” of those who have been born again.

The “firstborn” is a term that is used to describe the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29; Colossians 1:15, 18). Significantly, Jesus is referred to as the Father’s “firstborn” in 1:6. He is also called “the firstborn from the dead” in Revelation 1:5.

Perhaps the recent mention of Esau has led to this issue of being firstborn being emphasised. Esau missed out; those whose names are registered in heaven will not. What a privilege!

Those who are in Christ are blessed with all the privileges that attend such sonship. And the surety of these privileges is that our names are “registered” in heaven. I believe that this group includes believers of all ages, but I will substantiate that in a moment.

The contextual point being made is that those who are beneficiaries of the new covenant have come a place of deep and everlasting community. As Bruce helpfully summarises, “As the earthly Zion was the meeting point for the tribes of the old Israel, so the heavenly Zion is the meeting point for the new Israel.”7

Those under the old covenant lived in uncertainty, and perhaps the Day of Atonement underscored this more than any other time. But under the new covenant, we have eternal security—literally. Our names are enrolled in heaven!

Fourth, Mount Zion is home of “God the Judge of all.” As we draw near to God in Christ, particularly in fellowship with the gathered saints, we do so to worship the one true and universal God. As Hughes puts it, “Although the scene in Zion to which we come is a joyous festival, it is not a casual thing. We come to Zion to meet the God of Sinai, who is judge of all.”8

The new covenant makes one people from many peoples. The old covenant was primarily focused on Israel, but the new covenant is universal in its scope. God being viewed as “Judge” should not be viewed solely in a sense of pronouncing a verdict but inclusive of His wise and judicial caring for His people—for all of His people. Under the new covenant, the true Israel of God indeed is a kingdom of priests for all of God’s people (compare Exodus 19:5–6 with Revelation 1:5–6).

Importantly, this aspect of God as Judge emphasises His vindicating, His acquittal, of sinners compared to the terrifying scene at Sinai. This Judge justifies!

Fifth, Mount Zion is characterised by perfection. We come “to the spirits of just men made perfect.” This is related to all that has been said in this verse. This church of the firstborn is made up all of those who throughout history were justified by the grace of God (10:38; 11:6). This is clearly the teaching of 11:13–16 and is reinforced in 11:39–40.

This is a constant theme in Hebrews (see 7:19; 9:9; 10:1, 14). The point throughout the epistle is that the old covenant could not fully and finally save. At best it could temporarily cover sin, but it could not cleanse sin. But the new covenant could and did.

The point I want to make is that anyone who has ever been saved has been saved under the new covenant. Some were looking forward to it and, when Jesus died and rose again, they were forever perfected by the work of the author and perfecter of our faith.

In short, these Hebrew believers had come to a much better mountain; they dare not go back. They needed to keep saying, “I want that mountain!” They dare not disregard their privileges.

A Far Better Mediator

Not only had these believers come to a better mountain; they had also come to a far better mediator: “to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant.” The comparison between the mounts and the description of Mount Zion has reached its climax: the one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5). This, of course, is the main point of this epistle.

The author has argued from the beginning that Jesus is superior to any mediator, at any point in history. All other mediators fell short, in some way, making it necessary for a more perfect way. And so he has shown that Jesus as Mediator is greater than Moses, greater than any angels (through whom the covenant was given, see 2:2), greater than any Levitical sacrificial system, greater than any priesthood and greater than any high priest. They all fell short in their attempts to bring us to God (7:11, 19a; 9:9).

However, where these former mediators did succeed was in bringing redemptive history to its fulfilment, to its perfection in Jesus Christ (see 7:19b; 9:11–15; 10:1–4).

At Mount Sinai, the scene was a terrifying one, so much so that even Moses, God’s appointed mediator, was terrified. And he was terrified because he knew that he was a sinner. Yet under the new covenant, we have an infinitely better Mediator, the Lord Jesus Christ. And since He is sinless, He is not fearful to intercede on our behalf. In fact, it is clear from the entire New Testament that He delights to do so. And as we have learned in this epistle, He is not ashamed to call us brethren (see 2:10–18). He delights to do so. And He always has, and He always will succeed (see 7:25).

It was so important for these Hebrew believers to keep this before them. Under the new covenant, Jesus bridges the gap and our terror turns into triumphant praise. After all, if our elder Brother is not fearful, why should we be? Yes, our God is a consuming fire (v. 29), and that should strike terror into the heart of one who does not have God’s appointed Mediator. But those who have left Sinai for Mount Zion need not fear. This is our writer’s burden!

The Lord Jesus Christ is the Head of this Mount Zion to which we belong. What a privilege!

Coming to the better Mediator, we also come “to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.” This is inseparably connected to the previous privilege. It is precisely due to the excellence of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ that He is the way better Mediator. The blood of the new covenant is in His blood. You cannot do better than this.

In fact, under the old covenant, which at its inauguration included the sprinkling of blood (Exodus 24:7–8), the people made bold commitments and promptly failed. But under the new covenant, though we often fail, the “blood of Jesus Christ … cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). This is a major way in which Mount Zion supersedes Mount Sinai.

But of all of the examples of blood that the author could have used, why did he reference the blood of Abel? This bloodshed preceded the blood that God began to prescribe at Sinai; in fact, it preceded it by many, many hundreds of years.

I think that that is precisely one major reason why he referenced it. The blood of Jesus Christ cleanses from all sin, of all repentant sinners throughout all of time. This is why Mount Zion includes “the spirits of just men made perfect” from all periods of human history. Jesus has always been the only way of salvation (Genesis 3:15).

Abel was the first person on earth to die. And how was he saved? On what basis was he justified? On the basis of the person and work of Jesus Christ, the one Mediator appointed by God to save sinners. And Abel, as we saw in Hebrews 11:4 believed this.

But further, the blood of Abel, the blood of the first person to be murdered, cried out for vengeance (Genesis 4:10). It cried out for justice, and only for justice. But the blood of Jesus Christ “speaks better things.” It speaks of both justice and mercy. The shed blood of that brother cried for judgement; the shed blood of our Brother cries for mercy (2:11).

Mount Sinai cried out for justice. It’s primary message was that God is holy and sin must be punished. Though, of course, the old covenant had much of grace in it, nevertheless, to the guilt-burdened soul, it did not, it could not, offer an abiding sense of a cleansed conscience. For, as we have learned, each time sacrifices were made there was a reminder of sins. And with each sacrifice there was a corresponding reminder that God’s justice must be satisfied. And no mere man could satisfy it. So enter Jesus.

He is the supreme Mediator because His blood was precious, for He was without spot or blemish. He was sinless. Therefore He alone could satisfy God’s holy and just demands. And He did (see Romans 3:20–25).

Summary

By God’s new covenant we have come to a much better place. We have come to Mount Zion. Yes, we are grateful for Mount Sinai, for we need to know the guilt of sin. But Mt Zion give us forgiveness with all its privileges to enjoy.

This mount is glorious. It is gracious. It is inviting. It is reconciling. It is timeless. It is near. It is universal (in terms of access).

Application

As we draw to a close, let me point to several points of application.

First, do you understand what it means to be a Christian? It means to draw near.

A fundamental point being driven home in this passage is that, whereas Mount Sinai spoke of God’s infinite separateness from sinners, Mount Zion speaks of fellowship, of communion between God and man, as well as between redeemed men. Mount Sinai was both an invitation and at the same time a warning not to get too close, because of our sin. Mount Zion, because of Mount Calvary, speaks to us with passionate invitation, “Come to Me!” In a sense, from Mount Zion our God speaks and says, “Even though I am holy, and therefore I can be dangerous, nevertheless, through My Mediator, it is safe to draw near.” Because He saves us, we are safe—forever.

Therefore, in spite of the dangers we face from those opposed to Zion, we are safe in the city of God. So keep drawing near. The recipients of this epistle needed to hear this. God is speaking the same thing to you and me. Will we hear and heed?

Second, there is a particular map you must follow to get to Mount Zion. You first have to go to Mount Sinai (conviction of sin). Then you must go to Mount Calvary (justification by Christ). Then you will find yourself in Mount Zion (sanctification and glorification).

Third, do you and I appreciate what it means to be a “registered” member of “the general assembly and church of the firstborn”? If you do, it will help you to properly prioritise the church. It will help you to get along with others in the church. It will help you to treat others with respect and consideration. Your fellow church members may mistreat you, but remember that they are, in a real sense, “just men made perfect.” That is, at least, their destiny, and so therefore we must be willing to forbear with one another, to forgive one another, to be considerate to one another, to serve one another. Be careful not to despise God’s children; you may find yourself outside of Mount Zion, the kingdom of God. In fact, you may find yourself in hell (see Matthew 18:1–9)!

Conclusion

In conclusion, let us remember the biblical principle: To whom much is given, much is required. This passage leads to this very point (see vv. 25–29). As Morris comments, the author “sounds a note of warning that great privilege means great responsibility.”9

Don’t treat Jesus Christ and His gospel lightly. Jesus is speaking, so listen (v. 25; cf. 1:1–2) and draw near.

Those with Moses at Mount Sinai asked Moses to speak to God on their behalf (Exodus 20:18–21). They did not want to speak to God directly, nor did they want God to speak directly to them. They were quite happy for God to be distant. But God wasn’t.

And so, under the new covenant, God has drawn near to humanity—and especially to His people. We therefore must draw near. Thank God we can and we may draw near!

As someone has put it, we are to have a healthy fear of Jesus (v. 29) but we need not be afraid of Jesus. What a glorious privilege! Come and enjoy Mount Zion.

Show 9 footnotes

  1. R. Kent Hughes, Hebrews: An Anchor for the Soul, 2 vols. (Wheaton: Crossway, 1993), 2:194.
  2. F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews: The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 371.
  3. Marcus Dods, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 4:374.
  4. Dods, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 4:373.
  5. Raymond Brown, The Message of Hebrews: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 243.
  6. Leon Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 12:142.
  7. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 373.
  8. Hughes, Hebrews, 2:192–93.
  9. Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12:141.