Hebrews: Receiving an Unshakeable Kingdom

Sermon by Ed Hartman on November 15

Hebrews 12:18-29

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If you have a Bible, I invite you to open it to Hebrews chapter 12 or you can use your bulletin. The passage is printed there for you. We’re going to focus our study, verses 18 through 29 of Hebrews 12, on the very end of this passage; it’s the end with which we began our service. At least in the translation in which I memorized it, it’s the old, the original NIV, that version places the emphasis the same way the Greek language does. It talks about what we’re receiving before it talks about what we ought to be doing. And it says, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us be thankful and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” We are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken. The question is, “What difference does that make in a world that really feels like it’s shaking in unprecedented ways?” The pandemic. An election that in some people’s minds is still unresolved. The political upheaval of rancorous debate. Issues of violence in our culture. Racial tensions. Unresolved historical issues. Economic issues. The list goes on, all the way down to the personal shaking that you and I feel from some places that are known only to ourselves. What difference does it make that we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken while we live in a world that feels like it’s really shaking? That’s what I’d like us to consider this evening.

It goes without saying that a kingdom is a domain ruled by a king. That’s what we’re talking about. That’s what we’re receiving. And the king that rules this domain in this kingdom has absolute authority and sovereign power. The kingdom is Jesus’ dominant image to talk about why He came, at least one of His dominant images. In the Gospel, all four gospels, that image of kingdom is used 126 times, culminating at the very end of Jesus’ ministry right before He went to the cross. In Matthew 24:14 he said, “And this Gospel, this Gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, to all people groups, and then the end will come.” This kingdom that we are receiving, it’s the good news of that kingdom. We are receiving it and it’s already here, and yet part of it is not yet in our present experience. There’s both – the already and the not yet. And when Jesus was asked by His disciples, “Teacher, show us how you want us to pray,” Jesus said, He began with, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Your kingdom come. This passage shows us that Jesus is right now answering that prayer.

It’s with that in mind that I’d like us to read together verses 18 through 29. Before we do, let’s pray.

Our Father, Your Word says that this Word, Your Word, is alive and powerful, that it’s sharper than any two-edged sword, that it pierces even to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and it’s able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of Him to whom we must give an account. So make it so this evening. Cause Your Word to be alive and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword. Cause it to penetrate deeply, to reveal what otherwise lies hidden, and make us ready to give an account to the One before whom we live out our lives, even this day. We ask in Jesus’ name, amen.

Hebrews 12:18:

“For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, ‘If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.’ Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.’ 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, 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, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.’ This phrase, ‘Yet once more,’ indicates the removal of things that are shaken – that is, things that have been made – in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”

This is God’s Word.

I’d like us to consider three things from this passage this evening. A very simple outline. One, I’d like us to consider the description of this kingdom that we are now receiving. Secondly, the certainty of this kingdom. And third, the cost of the kingdom.

The Description of the Kingdom

First of all then, the description of the kingdom. On one level it’s very simple. It’s a kingdom that cannot be shaken. No matter what else happens, this kingdom cannot and will not be shaken. But the author doesn’t stop there. He describes this kingdom with remarkable specificity by contrasting two scenes, actually, two mountains, and what each one represents. There’s Mount Sinai in verses 18 through 21 and then Mount Zion in verses 22 through 24. And each of these mountains is a place where God meets with His people and reveals Himself to them. And it’s in that contrast that we find a clear picture of this kingdom that we are receiving.

Mount Sinai, in verses 18 through 21, looks back to Exodus chapter 19. You remember this is right before Moses receives God’s Law in Exodus 20. But God meets with Moses and He says, “Tell the people to consecrate themselves. Tell them to get ready. In three days, I am going to appear to these people.” Now remember, these people had not heard from God for 400 years. They were in slavery in Egypt. They didn’t know who this God was. They had forgotten everything they had known about how He had worked for their fathers – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. All they knew was slavery. Now they had been delivered from bondage through miraculous signs and wonders, culminating in the Red Sea, the uncrossable ocean to them. It parted and they were led through with the pursuing Egyptian army behind them being engulfed by the returning waters. And now they’re on the other side wandering through the wilderness, getting to the foot of Mount Sinai, and Moses says, “Get ready. God is going to make Himself known. You are going to see this God who delivered you.”

And the people – you can imagine the wonder, the excitement. They’re thinking, “Wow! He’s going to show up!” And they get themselves ready on the first day and there’s all these ceremonial things they’ve got to do. They’ve got to get themselves ready on the second day, and on the third day, God shows up on top of Mount Sinai. And His message to His people is, “Stay back! Don’t come any closer! Stay away! You cannot come close!” And they’re terrified at what they see. And you see that imagery throughout the first several verses of this passage of blazing fire, darkness, gloom, a tempest, a sound of a building trumpet, a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. God said to them back in Exodus 19 that even if an animal touches the mountain where God reveals Himself you’ve got to kill it by hurling rocks at it or by slinging arrows at it and kill it. Animal or man, you cannot come close. Stay away.

In contrast to that, you have Mount Zion in verses 22 through 24. Interesting, verse 18 says, “You have not come to this mountain.” Verse 22 says, “But you have come to this mountain.” And it’s in that contrast you see what’s really there. What follows is seven descriptive phrases, each of which deserves a whole sermon or series of sermons on its own. We don’t have time to delve deeply into every descriptive phrase. I can read them to you and touch on just one or two. “You have come to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” You have finally drawn near. God has given you new access, unprecedented; here, Mount Zion, the cross of Jesus. “You have come to innumerable angels in festal gathering” – literally a victory celebration for the conquering king. A tickertape parade that goes on for all eternity where God’s people, innumerable angels reference here, are gathered in a victory celebration and we’re invited in to that.

“You have come to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven.” Firstborn is not singular, referring to Jesus, the firstborn of the dead. Rather, it’s plural, meaning you have come to the assembly, the church of the firstborn ones. And you remember that in the ancient Near East the firstborn son was always the favored child, receiving the double portion. You understand that if a man had three sons, three children, the first one would get fifty percent of what belonged to his father. The other two would only get twenty-five percent each because the firstborn was the favored son. He was the one who received the special privileges, the special rights and the special responsibilities. And the author here says, “You have come to the church of the firstborn ones,” meaning if you belong to Christ, you’re His favorite. God has no red-headed stepchildren. There are no second class citizens in the family of God. You come to Christ and you are His favorite because you belong to the church of the firstborn ones who are enrolled in heaven. You’ve come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of a new covenant, to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. The blood of Abel spoke for revenge and judgment; the blood of Jesus speaks of forgiveness and reconciliation and wholeness and peace. This, this is the kingdom that we are receiving, the kingdom with the Lord Jesus as the rightful King ruling unchallenged, unquestioned, permanently. This is what is ours in this kingdom that we are receiving. This is what gives us the assurance, the stability, the security, the stamina to live in a world that is shaking continually. It’s what fills our hearts with hope and joy and expectation and longing and freedom that we are receiving this kingdom which cannot be shaken.

The Certainty of the Kingdom

Now you may be thinking, “I don’t see it. When do I get this kingdom? When do I get to say, ‘Oh, this is what we were talking about!’” I want you to see, secondly, not just the description of the kingdom but the certainty of this kingdom because it says we “are receiving.” Not, “We’ll one day receive it,” but “We are receiving a kingdom,” present tense, “which cannot be shaken.” It’s unstoppable and it’s invincible. Think about it this way. When our older daughter was five or six years old, she began being enamored with horses. She read every book on horses that she could get her hands on. She watched every movie about horses. When she went to camp, she always signed up, her first activity was horses. “Can I only do horses?” That was what she wanted. And every time she’d come home she’d say, “Daddy, can I have a horse of my own?” And my answer was always the same. “Well sure, Katie. Sure, you can have a horse. When you graduate from college and get married and your husband has a piece of property and he wants to feed your horse, yes, you can have a horse!” And she would always roll her eyes when I answered that way.

But imagine how differently she responded when I said to her, in response to her question, “Daddy, can I have a horse?” and I said to her, “Why sure, Katie. You can have a horse. We’ve actually bought it. Your horse, it’s a black mare, thoroughbred, named Scout. And I’ve already arranged for a barn, a stable for her to stay in, and a huge pasture planted in ryegrass where Scout will live and you can ride her. I got you a saddle and it’s on the trailer being delivered. Yes, you can have a horse. It’s coming.” Can you imagine how differently she responded that day, with her eyes lit up, tears in her eyes saying, “Really? I’m getting a horse! I’m receiving a horse!”

This is what the author of Hebrews is saying to us. “We are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken.” Because of Mount Zion, because of what happened at the cross, it’s been purchased for us. It is secured. It is invincible. It is unstoppable. It is already in our experience, at least in part, and the rest is yet to come. But it is coming and you are receiving that kingdom which cannot be shaken. It’s certain.

The Cost of the Kingdom

But before we skate over that, we need to look at the cost, thirdly. The cost of the kingdom. This is where I’d like us to slow down because there’s a cost to Christ and there’s also a cost to us in this passage. And I want us to think about that. It’s important to notice that the passage begins and ends with fire. Did you see that? First line; last line. Verse 18, “For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire.” And the last line, verse 29, “For our God is a consuming fire.” Both places where God met with His people there was fire and there is fire when God meets with His people. Throughout Scripture the fire is a picture of judgment. It’s the picture of His consuming wrath against sin. That fire is quoted – verse 29 is a direct quotation from Deuteronomy chapters 4 and 9 where it says, “For our God, the LORD, your God is a consuming fire.” Even His appearance, Exodus 24:17 says the appearance of the glory of the Lord on top of Mount Sinai was like “a consuming fire” there on the mountain. Throughout the Old Testament, the sacrifice on the altar, whenever God’s people sinned, the sacrifice placed there was consumed by fire – sometimes lit by the priests; other times the fire fell directly from heaven.

And the author of Hebrews has already raised the issue of fire, consuming fire, in Hebrews 10 verse 26, just two chapters earlier, where it says, “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.” Here’s the point. The consuming fire of God’s wrath in judgment must always fall on sin. You know this, but I want us to slow down and think about this, what this means. The consuming fire of God’s wrath must always fall upon sin. It either falls upon the sinner or it falls upon the substitute. There is no third option. And this is what the writer of Hebrews is highlighting in this passage.

And so he points first of all to the cost to Christ. The consuming fire of God’s wrath in judgment fell on our sin in Christ. You see that in verse 24. “You’ve come to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” This is referring to His blood shed on the cross as He died in our place. Paul picks up on this in what, to me, is the most significant verse in the Bible describing what the Gospel actually is – 2 Corinthians 5:21 – where it says, “God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us.” And there, the consuming fire of God’s wrath fell upon His Son because His Son had become my sin and yours. Not just that we would be forgiven, but so that every one of those seven descriptive phrases that describe the kingdom we are receiving would become true for us in our present and permanent experience. That’s the cross, the cost of the kingdom to Christ.

But there’s also a cost to us. There really is a cost to us because when the writer of Hebrews says, “For our God is a consuming fire,” I said he quoted Deuteronomy 4 but it doesn’t stop in that short phrase. It goes on to say, “For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.” God Himself, when He reveals Himself to Moses and through him to His people, says, Exodus 20 verse 5 – this is at the beginning of the Ten Commandments – He says, “For I, the Lord your God am a jealous God.” And then later in Exodus 34:14 He says, “For you shall worship no other God, for the LORD whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” Do you understand that when you pray the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Your name,” which is Jealous, “hallowed be Your name,” which is Jealous. God says, “My name is Jealous.” What is that talking about? What do we mean that our God is a jealous God?

J.I. Packer, in his book, Knowing God, puts it very simply. He says, “God’s jealousy is His holiness reacting to all evil in a way that is morally right and precious. It is His praiseworthy zeal to preserve something supremely precious.” His point is this. When I’m jealous it can be born out of my insecurity, but God’s jealousy is never born out of insecurity; it’s born out of exclusivity. The two are vastly different. Think about a husband and wife relationship. No honorable man is going to be willing to share his wife with another lover. Right? No honorable wife is going to be willing to share her husband with another lover. There’s a unique and vital exclusivity to the intimacy between a husband and wife. And jealousy is a picture of a husband who gets rightfully angry when someone else competes for his wife’s affection, for her heart, or when her heart goes after another lover. For that husband to simply shrug his shoulders and say, “Oh well, do what you want. Whatever makes you happy,” that proves he doesn’t love his wife in the first place, or the wife her husband. There is a necessary exclusivity to the intimacy between a husband and wife. There’s a first-love status. And when that is tested and a third party comes in and the affections and that primary intimacy begins to be directed toward another, there’s a right and necessary jealousy, the absence of which proves that there wasn’t a love there to begin with in the first place. Does that make sense?

J.I. Packer picks it up this way and says, “If a husband and wife truly love each other, they will feel jealousy if that intimate love relationship is threatened. In a marriage, this kind of jealousy, which is a necessary byproduct of love, is evoked as a way of protecting the relationship and keeping it intact. It longs to preserve what is valuable and beautiful.” And so when God says, “My name is Jealous. The LORD your God is a jealous God,” it’s a jealousy born not out of insecurity but out of exclusivity. What God is saying is, the cost of the kingdom is, “I alone can be in first place for the affections of your heart. I will not offer My status of first place to another lover in your life. I will not compete with any idol. I will not compete with anything or anyone who vies, who woos, for the delight of your heart.” There’s an exclusivity to His representing Himself, making Himself known as a jealous God.

Why is that important? Or to whom is that important? Well I suspect that at bare minimum it’s important to the person who says, “Well, yeah, I’m a sinner but I’m not that kind of sinner. I’ve not murdered anybody. I’ve not rigged an election. I’ve not kidnapped anybody. I’ve not abused anybody. I’ve not been to prison. I’m not guilty of those spectacular sins. I’m not a spectacular sinner. I’m just kind of an ordinary sinner. Yeah, Jesus died for my sins but I’m not one of those big sinners.” And it’s to that person, like me, that this passage says, “No, actually you’re the worst kind of sinner. You, Ed, and you are the spectacular sinner.” Why? Because you and I are guilty of the worst kind of sin. You and I have violated the most important commandment, the greatest commandment, which Jesus Himself said that the greatest commandment is this – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength.”

And yes, I love God, but man, there are so many other lovers in my life, so many other lovers to which I look for that which only I can find in the Lord Jesus Himself. I look to the way my wife thinks about me. I want her to think that I’m great. And on the days she thinks I’m great, my life is rocking along. And on the days she thinks I’m not so great, nothing else seems to be all that good. I want my kids to think I’m an awesome dad. I want to feel some measure of control in my life. Who here has control right now? I want to know where my kids are going to go to school next week. Are they going to be at home? Are they going to be in their classroom? Are they going to be out at some field somewhere – Twin Lakes Camp, doing outdoor school? I want to have a sense of control over what’s going to happen with my health. I want to know what’s going to happen with our economy and will my investments be secure. I want to have control over how I spend my time. The list can go on and on and on. There are so many places that my heart goes to say, “Maybe you’ll love me if I get the comfort that I want, if I get the security I want, if I get that thing which only Jesus can prove.” But I say, “Yeah, yeah, I have Jesus but I want this too. Boy, I want it bad.” And you can tell how badly I want it when you see what I become angry about for not having it. Right?

Our God is a jealous God. He will not tolerate other lovers. He will not compete with other lovers for our primary affections. That’s the cost of this kingdom. Our God is a consuming fire. He will not settle for being one lover among many in our lives. “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us be thankful and so worship God acceptably with reverence and with awe, for our God, our God is a consuming fire.” You see, that’s the heart of worship, isn’t it? It’s where we began; it’s where we’ll end. God calls us to come to Him with a heart, that by faith, receives over and over again. That says, “God, I don’t see an unshakable kingdom. I see lots all around me that really feels like it’s shaking badly. But I trust You that this kingdom is coming, it is inbound, it is unstoppable, it is invincible. What You have begun, You will finish.” How do I know? Because the text doesn’t say, “This God is a consuming fire.” It says, “Our God is a consuming fire.” That’s covenantal language. He is my God. He is your God. He is ours. He condescends to allow us to call Him “Our God.” Knowing this, we can be certain that every promise He’s ever made to us He will fulfill.

The one thing that keeps us from buying into that is the chief command that we find in this passage. It’s in the second paragraph. Verse 25, he says, “See that you do not refuse Him who is speaking.” And that word, “refuse,” is translated from a Greek word that literally means, not a, “No!” It’s not that. It’s actually more subtle. It’s a shoulder shrugging, “No, I’ve got other stuff going on.” It’s the dismissal. It’s the distraction. It’s the – what have we been talking about? Drifting, dulling and hardening, the preoccupation with a thousand other things. The, “I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to pay attention to this. I’ve got to make sure I’ve got this resolved. It all depends on me. I’ve got to cover all of this.” The writer says, “See that you don’t let those things become so big that you forget you really are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken. It’s yours already. It’s the cost. We’ve got to repent of all the other lovers into whose arms we’ve been running and saying, “Maybe if I get this, maybe if I accomplish this, maybe if I finish this, maybe if this happens, then…” You fill in the blanks. It’s looking to any other thing that actually can deliver in part, what only Jesus can fully provide to us in this kingdom which cannot be shaken. You either embrace this kingdom or you’ll run after a hundred other, a thousand other kingdoms of your own making. None of them will deliver.

“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us be thankful and so worship God acceptably with reverence and with awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” Let’s pray together.

Lord Jesus, You have said that unless you receive this kingdom like a child, you will never enter it at all. So would You make us like children who simply trust our Father, who’s made great and precious, unchangeable promises to us. And may we by repentance turn away from all the other lovers after which we have run and turn to the One who invites us afresh to draw near, to hold fast, and to rest. We ask in Jesus’ name, amen.

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