I recently spent the afternoon walking around various historic sites in Washington, DC. As I approached the Washington Monument I took in the beautiful panorama of the city and was struck by the view of the White House on my left and the Capital Building directly in front of me. As I did so I was struck with the thought that I was in the most powerful city in the world. There is arguably no other city in the world that is watched as carefully as Washington. I suppose it can be said that when Washington sneezes the rest of the world catches pneumonia!
Chuck Colson, one time chief of staff to President Richard Nixon, commented that he often saw people of great power almost melt when they entered the oval office. He said that what struck him most, particularly in hindsight after he became a Christian, was how ministers of the gospel would suddenly lose all sense of conviction as they stood before the president. He lamented the intimidation that those who represented the King of kings experienced as they stood before a mere man. I thought about that as I searched the panorama of power. And as I did so, I was struck with the words of Hebrews 12, which speaks of the greatest city of all, the New Jerusalem, the church and kingdom of Christ.
I sat down on a bench at the Washington Monument, opened to this passage, and reflected for a few moments on this truth as I observed the Capital Building. I noticed that the Building is encased in scaffolding as repairs are being made. It occurred to me how the things of this world need to be propped up precisely because they are not permanent. I gave thanks to God right there that, by His grace, I am a receiving member of a kingdom that cannot be shaken. And I silently but worshipfully asked for grace to serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear.
I also thought about the judgement of a consuming fire that will come from God on those who reject His rule as mediated by His Son. I contemplated this all, having just come from the front of the White House, where a prolife group was demonstrating against the holocaust of abortion so rampant in a nation that at one time claimed to be Christian. I considered the reality that much will be required from those to whom much is given. That perspective gave me a new set of eyes as I continued my walk through that significant city.
As I subsequently walked through the many war memorials, including the one in honour of veterans of the Korean War, of which my father was one, I found myself often wiping my eyes as I thought of the hundreds of thousands who gave their lives for a kingdom that will be shaken; and then I thought about the privilege for Christians to lay down our lives for a kingdom that will not be shaken.
Later, as I walked past the massive State Department, a place where world-influencing decisions are regularly made, I reminded myself again that the future is bright, not because of any set of geopolitical policies developed in that massive building but rather because of the promises of God with reference to His kingdom. Yes, as greatly influential as Washington, DC is, it does not remotely compare to the far greater city of God. The city, of which, by the grace of God, we Christians have been made citizens. Washington, like every other city, will one day be shaken to its foundations, but the city of God will go from strength to strength. What a great privilege and what a tremendous opportunity and responsibility. What city or kingdom are you living for?
For a first-century Jew, geopolitical Jerusalem was the Washington, DC of the day. It was their focal point of every aspect of life. It was the social focus as the major festivals were observed here. It was the political focus as this was the place where, historically, their kings ruled. But most importantly it was their religious focus for it was at Jerusalem where the temple was located. It was therefore the place where sacrifices were offered, most notably at Passover and then on the Day of Atonement. Jerusalem was so significant that entire psalms were written focusing on what God was doing there, and numerous other psalms made important reference to this city. After all, Jerusalem, also known as Mount Zion, was referred to as the city of God. It was viewed as the place that God chose as His earthly home. In fact, it was so significant a city that God Himself referred to it as “heaven and earth” (Isaiah 51:16; 2 Chronicles 6:21, 30, 33, 39 in context).
Yet the writer tells his fellow Jews that this city is about to be shaken to destruction. But they are not to fear because those who have repented of their sins and who have believed on the Lord Jesus Christ are citizens of an unshakeable city. They are citizens of Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem. And this city will endure forever (11:10).
We don’t know where these Christians lived but we have a pretty good idea that they were from Italy (13:24). Most likely, they were among the thousands of Jews, both believing and non-believing, who had been unceremoniously expelled from Rome under the reign of Emperor Claudius (Acts 18:2).
We don’t know how many were being addressed. Many suggest that this epistle was written to a particular house church by a beloved friend with a pastor’s heart.
We also do not know who the author was. He may have been one of the apostles. But perhaps he was a former church member who, for whatever reason, was permitted to remain in Italy. Perhaps he was their pastor.
Though there is much that we do not know, yet we do know that these Christians were Hebrews. And we know that they were undergoing intense (and intensifying) pressure for their profession of faith in Christ and for their subsequent loyalty to Him. Their faith was being shaken. The writer therefore writes this epistle to exhort them to continue to follow the Lord Jesus.
The epistle focuses on Christ as indeed the final Word from God concerning God’s plan of redemption (1:1–2). The writer has shown the supremacy of Christ over every former human mediator of God’s salvation, including the greats (Abraham and Moses). He has also proven the supremacy of Jesus Christ and His work over the mediating Levitical priesthood and the entire high priestly mediating sacrificial system. Jesus Christ is the fulfilment of all that this had pointed to. He is the great Priest-King and King-Priest. This was good news to them; it should be to you and me as well.
But remember again that the original readers wre Hebrews. Perhaps the two most important things to a faithful Jew were the covenant and the city of God, Mount Zion—Jerusalem. In fact, to a Jewish person the covenant and the city were inseparable.
The covenant brought them into a special relationship with God and the city was His unique dwelling place with them, particularly because it housed the temple.
The author has argued for the supremacy of the new covenant over the old. This was an essential truth for them to understand. In fact, it was precisely here where many were stumbling. Therefore, our writer spends a great deal of time and space proving that the new covenant has superseded the old covenant because it is a better covenant. The word “better” is significant in this epistle (and is used eleven times). The reason that it is better is because the new covenant has a better Mediator, the Lord Jesus Christ (see 8:6; 9:15; 12:24).
But there is more. The new covenant gives us a better confidence than did the old covenant. That is, under the old covenant there was the constant and repetitive reminder of one’s sins. Each offer of a sacrifice, from a right kind of heart, would proclaim forgiveness. But it would at the same time also be a reminder that the work of redemption was not yet complete. A special weekend, like the one we recently observed, would be required for a once-for-all sacrifice (7:27; 9:12; 10:10). But until such time, the offering of sacrifices was required. And this is one reason why the city was so prominent and important in the minds and hearts of the faithful. It was here that these repetitive atoning sacrifices were made (Passover, etc., and especially the Day of Atonement).
Now, let me pull this together, particularly with how these issues of the covenant and the city related to the recipients of this epistle.
With the annulling of the old covenant, with its removal, there was a corresponding diminishing of the significance of the city. If old covenant sacrifices were no longer necessary then the place where they were offered was also no longer a place of prominence. But these were fighting words to first century Jews (and to many 21st century Evangelicals!).
The writer quite clearly makes the conclusion that, in his very day, the old city was giving way to a new city. Whereas the former city was geopolitical in nature, this one was invisible yet far more significant. These Jewish Christians needed to know and to believe this. And so do we. This is the theme of the rest of chapter 12, and it underscores chapter 13.
The last time that we gathered around this passage we focused on vv. 18–24 and the glorious privilege that is ours. The writer makes the point that, under the new covenant, God is approachable (even though, as we will see later, He remains a consuming fire). We learned that, under the old covenant, though God desired to dwell with His people, His holiness was too much of a barrier for them to experience unbroken communion. However, under the new covenant, the way is open because Jesus Christ, God’s appointed Mediator between God and man offered His holy life as the once-for-all sacrifice to make forgiveness and reconciliation a forever reality.
By the grace of God, the new covenant has made it possible for believers to be adopted into God’s forever family. This indeed is a glorious privilege.
But with privileges come responsibilities. Those who have been shown the way are to embrace their covenantal responsibilities. And this is the theme of the closing section of chapter 12; in fact, this forms the closing doctrinal section of the heart of this epistle. And what we learn is that to whom much is given, much is also required. This closing passage drives home this very point. As Morris comments, the author “sounds a note of warning that great privilege means great responsibility.”1
These words from God call us to respond to our opportunity and to embrace our responsibility seriously (v. 25), urgently (v. 26), confidently (vv. 27–28a) and worshipfully (vv. 28b–31).
Take Seriously Your Responsibility
In v. 25 the writer says that his readers are to watch closely (“see”) that they do not “refuse Him who speaks.” It is the Triune God who is speaking, with particular reference to the Lord Jesus. The epistle opens with this exhortation (1:1–2).
The contrast is being made between when God spoke “on earth” at Sinai in the establishment of the old covenant and His speaking now through His Son “from heaven.” In both cases God is speaking and anyone would be foolish to refuse to heed His voice, regardless of the era in which they live.
He makes the point that, clearly, those under the old covenant who refused to obey the word of the Lord perished and the same will hold true for those living now. This is a predominate concern of the author as he repeats this admonition in passages like 2:1–4; 3:7–13; 4:1; 6:1–8; 10:26–29 and here. The writer does not view God as being more tolerant under the new covenant than under the old covenant when it comes to sin; he makes this abundantly clear when he concludes that “our God is a consuming fire” (v. 29).
The point being made, both for them and for us, is that we must take very seriously our privileged opportunity to hear the gospel and to then respond to the it.
I recently read Taking God at His Word by Kevin De Young in which he explains the reality of the clarity of the Bible and how we need to simply respond to it. Think of the privilege that is ours to hear God’s voice each time that we open this book. Think of the privilege that is ours to hear God speaking to us each week as we gather in various settings to hear Him speak.
This is why it is so important that the Word of God saturates our services and our gatherings. We want to hear God’s voice. We can hear God’s voice. Will you then respond in obedience to God’s voice?
The sad news is that some chose to not listen to God’s voice simply because a particular messenger of that voice was not present. Some still do. They needed to remember that Jesus is greater than Moses. We need to remember that He is greater than John MacaAthur and Mark Dever, He is greater than any mere man. Take seriously His Word and obey and follow Him!
Regardless of the pressures leaning into you as you intend to follow Christ, do not turn away from Him. Do not refuse Him. Rather choose to follow Him.
Respond Urgently to Your Opportunity
Not only must these Hebrews seriously consider embracing Christ and the new covenant way of life, but they must do so urgently. Verses 26–27 make this very clear. The writer speaks of God
whose voice then shook the earth; but now He has promised, saying, “Yet once more I shake not only the earth, but also heaven.” Now this, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of those things that are being shaken, as of things that are made, that the things which cannot be shaken may remain.
In v. 26 the writer says that, just as God shook the earth at Sinai, so God will again shake both heavens and earth. He uses Haggai 2:6 to authoritatively undergird this. What does he mean?
The book of Haggai records the rebuilding of the temple after the destruction of the original temple and the subsequent seventy years of captivity. Haggai and Zechariah were raised up by God to exhort the Jews to persevere in this work. As the Jews laboured on the second temple they soon realised that it would not compare to the first one in its splendour and glory (2:1–3). The people were discouraged and were tempted to quit. So the Lord told Haggai to encourage them that His Spirit remained among them and that there was therefore no need to fear (2:5). They were to continue to persevere in their labours. The Lord then promised that, one day, He would “shake heaven and earth, the sea and dry land; and I will shake all nations, and they shall come to the Desire of All Nations, and I will fill this temple with glory” (2:6–7). To what was the Lord referring?
Clearly, He was not speaking of the second temple, for there is no record of such a thing happening. In fact, this temple would also be destroyed. But there was a third temple, the so-called “Herod’s temple,” which would be rebuilt in the days of Christ. Was this the temple to which Haggai was referring? No, for all nations would not be drawn to this one either. However, there was another Temple in which this prophecy would be fulfilled: the Temple of which Jesus spoke in John 2, the Temple of His body (John 2:13–22).
Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” He was speaking, of course, of His body. Jesus prophesied that He would be killed and rise from the dead three days later. And through this cornerstone work of the gospel the true temple of God, the church of the living God (Ephesians 2:19; 1 Peter 2:9; etc.) would be built. And indeed that temple would be made up of peoples from all nations. This is precisely what Haggai was referring to, and so this is precisely what the author of Hebrews was referring to. But still, what specifically was the shaking referring to? Did this occur upon the death of Christ? There was a great earthquake when Jesus died (Matthew 27:50–52), but that cannot be the idea because that had already happened and clearly the writer views something still in the future.
To cut to the chase, the writer is speaking of the coming destruction of Jerusalem along with the destruction and desolation of Herod’s temple. Jesus used such language to describe those days (Matthew 24:29; Mark 13:25; Luke 21:26).
We need to realise that symbolism is typical of all prophetic language. It is symbolic of the destruction of the city of Jerusalem, which was likened to heaven and earth. We see similar language in Revelation: the falling of the stars, and the moon turning blood red as the sky is darkened, etc. We see similar language in the Old Testament prophets describing the destruction of nations (e.g. Isaiah 13:1–10; Ezekiel 32:1–9).
The writer, we can therefore conclude, is speaking of the destruction of Jerusalem, the Washington, DC of the day. But with the shaking to desolation of the city and its temple, something of far greater significance took place than the mere destroying of buildings. In fact, this shaking brought to an end the entire old covenant system. This is what is referred to in v. 27 by “the removal of those things that are being shaken, as of things that are made.” This is a very significant statement. All the utensils, furnishings, altars, etc. of the old covenant system were “things that are made.” They were “made” after the pattern of that which was shown in the mount (8:5). The old covenant was tainted with earth whereas the new covenant is mediated from the One who is “from heaven” (v. 25). Therefore, the argument is that the essentials of the old covenant can be shaken (and they were) while the new covenant abides forever. The use of the word “remain” is theologically loaded. It speaks of that which is eternal, that which abides forever. The glorious gospel of God will remain for ever!
So, let’s now put this together: The writer is reminding his readers of the Lord’s warnings of such a judgement to come. And the time is “now” and at that very moment they were beginning to be “shaken.” To use language from Revelation, the time was “at hand.” “‘Yet once more’ signifies only once more. There would not be a succession of shakings, resulting in a succession of changes.”2
The Roman armies would soon their march towards Jerusalem. Their decision as to whether they would follow Christ, leaving the old covenant behind, was urgent indeed. Would they choose Jesus Christ and be a part of that which could not be shaken or would they choose the wide way and live on a shaky foundation bound for eternal destruction? There was no time to waste. The time was now!
Those days have come and gone. Jerusalem was destroyed and hundreds of thousands lost their lives. Those who ignored the serious and urgent decision to repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ died and went to hell.
The old covenant structure and system was irrevocably destroyed, shaken into oblivion. Those who refused Christ were left with a mere shell of a religion.
But thankfully many did believe on Christ. By the grace of God, many came to saving faith and, having repented of their sins, followed the Lord’s word and fled when the shaking began (Matthew 24:15–18). The result was that their physical lives were spared and, more importantly, their souls were saved.
Though those events are in our past the urgency to believe the gospel remains. You should be glad when the Lord sends circumstances and events into your life that shake the foundations of your life and your belief system. Don’t ignore God “speaking” to you in this way. But listen then more closely to His more sure Word of prophecy, the Bible, and repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.
Christian, is your life being shaken? Agitated? Convulsed? Then hear the urgent call to turn to the Lord. Now is not the time to trust in uncertain riches, or philosophies or voices of “authority.” Rather, now is the time to trust Christ more wholeheartedly and to continue to follow Him.
Urgency both bookends and permeates this entire passage. Will you be a faithful steward of this?
Respond Confidently to Your Opportunity
Verses 27–28a call for a confident response:
Now this, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of those things that are being shaken, as of things that are made, that the things which cannot be shaken may remain.
Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken….
This, of course, flows quite logically and naturally from what has been said so far. That is, since by believing on the Lord Jesus Christ we are now receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, we should not be easily shaken. We should live confidently, not nonchalantly, brashly and or cockily, but rather faithfully, relying on our God. We need not fear the reprisals of those who choose to reject Christ; we need not be shaken by the news reports of chaos all around us; we need not fear anything; but especially we should not fear death. That great enemy has been defeated. If you have repented of your sins and believed the good news of salvation through Christ alone, you have nothing to fear. Live confidently. Live by faith, which pleases God (11:6).
Hear the encouragement of Jesus, who said, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). After all, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).
It would seem that, under the old covenant, signified by the events at Mount Sinai, the Lord tolerated the people to remain at a distance. In fact, He commanded it and enforced it by commands and warnings for violations. He would only deal with the people through a mediator. And the people actually preferred this. But not so under the new covenant. Yes, God still utilises a Mediator but the Mediator is God Himself! He has drawn near and commands that His people draw near. We dare not neglect this privileged invitation.
Don’t hang onto that which is merely temporal but rather pursue that which is eternal. I don’t mean that the material is to be disregarded, but rather make everything gospel-centred. If you can’t do that then it is not worth pursuing.
In other words, seek first the kingdom of God. Serve the King, regardless of the cost.
Respond Worshipfully to Your Opportunity
The writer concludes, “Let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28b–29).
We recently were reminded that to be a Christian, as defined by the author of this epistle, is to draw near to God. That is precisely what Jesus Christ does for those who turn from their sins believing in Him. He reconciles sinners to God primarily so that they can be in a position to worship God. This is the great privilege of the Christian. Apparently, this was a privilege that was at great risk among the recipients of this letter. And so the writer appeals to them to get back to their previous devotion to God.
To have grace in order to serve God acceptably with reverence and fear is the heart of the epistle and the heart of the gospel. The writer was deeply aware and deeply concerned that these Hebrews, for all of their talk and concern about worship, were in fact not worshipping God acceptably at all. In fact, if they continued to hold on to the old covenant then they could not worship God acceptably. Ever since the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus there has only ever been one acceptable way in which to worship God and that is through the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12; John 14:6). This was the rub. Those Jews who wanted to hang onto the old covenant were in effect rejecting Christ. And you cannot reject Christ and be a worshipper of the true God at the same time.
The gospel is a worship-maker. Let me put it this way: If the gospel has not made you a worshipper of God then you either have believed the wrong gospel or you have not believed the true gospel.
So, as the writer concludes his epistle, he appeals to his readers to worship God “acceptably.” The word means “pleasingly” or “agreeably” and the idea here is that for worship to be such it must be in accordance with God’s Word. In other words, it must be by faith (11:6). And since the object of our faith is Jesus Christ, the author is making the point that acceptable worship needs to move from Sinai to Zion through Calvary.
We must keep the gospel central if our worship will be pleasing or agreeable to God. That is, we must approach God with the mind and the heart set on the reality that all we have is Christ. Christ alone, with no room for our own merit, is the only way to be accepted by God. Any other approach is shaky and will not stand in the judgement. Our confidence must be in Christ alone.
But there are two modifiers in this passage with reference to acceptable worship: gratefulness and reverence.
The writer once again uses the familiar “let us” formula when he says, “Let us have grace.” Other versions translate this, “Let us be grateful” or, “Let us show gratitude.” These are probably closer to the idea being expressed. Though it is true that grace is needed to worship God, it would be strange to say, “Let us have grace,” implying there is something we can do to acquire such unmerited favour.
The point is that gratefulness for the gospel is the greatest motivator for worship. And, in fact, gratitude is also the greatest protector of our worship (Romans 1:21–23). Guthrie observes, “There is good reason to be thankful when something unchangeable is placed within our grasp. Moreover it should lead us to worship.”3
When we are grateful for Christ, for His person and work, then we are moved to bow the knee to our great God who has showed us such amazing grace. And when we are sufficiently grateful for this grace, then we will be very careful to honour the God who has shown us such gospel grace. We will be careful to approach Him in His appointed way. You see, grace humbles us and humility gives us ears to hear what the Lord is speaking to us concerning how to worship Him. Grace dispels man-centeredness with its me-centred approach to God. Grace opens our ears to listen to both Sinai and to Zion. This is why a truly gospel-instructed church will be scriptural and therefore both simple and sober in its corporate worship. It will aim to avoid anything that gets in the way of seeking, and seeing and savouring the Saviour.
Are you grateful for the gospel? If you are then you will be joyful, and this joyfulness will move you beyond yourself into the fellowship of others who are also grateful worshippers.
Let us have grace rather than guilt; let us have relationship rather than alienation; let us have nearness rather than distance.
But finally, we need to note the second modifier, as found in the latter part of v. 28 and concluding with v. 29. If our worship is acceptable to God then it will be both grateful and “awe-full”; it will be marked by reverence and rejoicing. Bruce helpfully comments,
To the grace of God the proper response is a grateful heart, and the words and actions that flow from a grateful heart are the sacrifices in which God takes delight. At the same time, such sacrificial worship must be offered with a due sense of the majesty and holiness of the God with whom we have to do: not only thankfulness, but reverence and awe must mark His people’s approach to Him.4
Too often Christians create an unbiblical discontinuity between the Old and the New Testaments—like the radio presenter I recently heard who said that he “sometimes” likes to read the Old Testament because “there’s some good stuff in there,” as if the bulk of it is irrelevant because of the New Testament.
This is the case when we make an unbiblical distinction between “the God of the Old Testament” and “the God of the New Testament.” That is so wrong! And these words make this abundantly clear. The writer quotes from Deuteronomy 4:24 to drive home the truth that, though the new covenant has superseded the old covenant, they both come from the same God. The God who shook the earth at Sinai is the same God who shook the heavens and the earth as He established Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of God.
It was important for these first century Jews to know that the new covenant is not a “looser” covenant when it comes to responsibility. In the Deuteronomy passage quoted, the context concerns covenantal integrity; it concerns the responsibility for God’s people to keep covenant. The point being made here in Hebrews is that those under the new covenant also have great covenantal responsibilities. Those saved by grace and therefore who own Christ as Saviour and Lord are accountable to such a Sovereign. If we turn away then we will face the fires of God’s wrath.
This is a theme that we have seen over and over in this epistle. We dare not treat the gospel of Christ or the Christ of the gospel lightly. We need a healthy dose of reverence. The fear of the Lord is still the pathway to life. But please note a very important corresponding reality.
In both mountains the people at the foot had a grave responsibility to fulfil the terms of the covenant. Of course, for those under the old covenant, this would condemn them. But under the new covenant we have grace upon grace to do so. (Note, however, that the old covenant was not graceless.)
Therefore if people were accountable to respond to a much more difficult covenant then how much more responsible are those who live in the era of the new covenant. And it is also important to note that the Lord God has not changed (v. 29). The language in this passage makes it abundantly clear that, when judgement falls on the children of Israel now, it will be far more severe.
Yes, we are responsible to keep covenant. We are responsible to fulfil our baptismal vows. But we also know that we will fall short. This is where the new covenant promise comes to us with such confident encouragement and assurance. We have a Mediator. His blood calls out for mercy for His brothers, not for vengeance (v. 24). Our elder Brother is also our High Priest, who makes us “perfect” (v. 23). Our heavenly Father has registered our names in heaven (v. 23) and they will never be blotted out of His Book of Life. In other words, this glorious gospel privilege (vv. 18–24) is what assures the fulfilment of our great gospel responsibility (vv. 25–29). As Jesus said, much is required from those who have received much. We have been given much by grace. And by grace we will be able to do what is required. Hallelujah, what a Saviour!
- Leon Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 12:141. ↩
- Edgar Andrews, A Glorious High Throne: Hebrews Simply Explained (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2003), 465. ↩
- Donald Guthrie, Hebrews: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983), 267. ↩
- F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews: The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 384. ↩