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The Glories and Responsibilities of Mt. Zion

Series: Hebrews

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Feb 24, 1999

Hebrews 12:18-29

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If you have your Bibles, I would invite you to turn with me to Hebrews 12.  We are in the middle of the chapter. We will pick up in verse 18.  I want to remind you of the big picture as we approach these final verses of the book of Hebrews.  The logic of Hebrews’ argument has been very straightforward. First of all, throughout the book, especially in the first ten chapters, the author has been at pains to stress that Jesus is superior to anything else, even the things that God appointed in the Old Testament times, and therefore, believers must place their trust in Jesus and Jesus alone. He has also stressed in this book the importance of persevering in our faith, of not starting off with Jesus and going back or falling back on something else. Especially beginning in chapter 10:39, he stresses to Christians that we should persevere in believing in Jesus.  And really, chapter 11, that familiar chapter about the faith of our forefathers in Christ, is a chapter designed to give us a huge illustration of men and women who went through their entire lives trusting in God and waiting for Him to fulfill His promises. And not seeing those promises fulfilled in this life and yet they continue to trust Him to the very end of their lives knowing that He would eventually fulfill the promises. Not in an earthly city, but in the city which has foundation.

Now Hebrews chapter 12 picks up where chapter 11 ends and draws some grand conclusions. Hebrews 12 has already stressed to us that Christians must purpose to grow in grace. Growing in Christ doesn’t just happen.  It doesn’t just happen accidentally. We must apply ourselves. Growing in Christ is not just about the Holy Spirit working in us, it is about our commitment to grow and our determinations to depend upon the Holy Spirit for the growth in grace which we so desire and which God has prepared for us.

Hebrews 12 also talks about the discipline which the Lord has planned for us.  The discipline that comes in the trials and testings of life. And the author of Hebrews assures us that God has not sent those kinds of trials and testings into our experience in order to frustrate us or in order to destroy us, but in fact, He has sent them into our experience so that we would be made like His Son. In fact, He goes on to argue that the fact that we face trials and difficulties and testings in this life is proof that we are His children. It is not an argument against His control in our relationship with Him, it is an argument for His control of the world and our relationship with Him. Now with that as background, let’s pick up in Hebrews chapter 12 beginning in verse 18. Hear God’s Word. 

Hebrews 12:18-29 

“Our Heavenly Father, we thank You for this great book. We thank You that You wrote it for our benefit, for our edification. That we might be built up in the truth and the wisdom and the knowledge of the Lord. We ask that by the Spirit our eyes would be opened and that we would be prepared to receive Your word for us in this hour. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

This passage in Hebrews 12 is about motivation. Now we have been talking about motivation for missions the last week and really, this passage fits beautifully into what we have already been saying for the whose week long. Really, not only in the sermons that have been preached, but in many of the messages and challenges that have been given, not only in Sunday School class but from this lectern.

Motivation in the Christian life is all-important. It is not only important what we do but why we do what we do. Those who teach Christian ethics and morals know that one of the unique things about the Christian system of living is why we do what we do, and this passage is about that very point. It supplies us with a biblical exhortation on the motivation for the Christian life. If you’ll look back with me in Hebrews 12, starting in verse 1, you will notice a series of imperatives. Those imperative come in the context of exhortations from the author of Hebrews urging us to do certain things. Let me run through some of them.

Notice in verse 1 that we are encouraged to lay aside every encumbrance and sin. There’s the first imperative. Lay aside every encumbrance and sin. We are also asked in verse 1 to do what? To run the race.  Another call or exhortation. In verse 2, we are called to fix our eyes on Jesus. In verses 4-11, if I can summarize that large chunk, we are called to expect discipline and to endure discipline. In verses 12 and 13, we are called upon to strengthen weak brethren.

In other words, we don’t just look out for ourselves, we attempt to encourage one another. We strengthen those brethren who are struggling. In verse 14, the author tells us to pursue peace with all men. And also in verse 14, he tells us that we ought to pursue that kind of holiness without which we will not see heaven.

Now all of those, and we could actually name more if we were looking for them, but all of those imperatives we are told to pursue because of what the author is going to tell us beginning in verse 18. We are to pursue these things because we are part of the realm of  gospel grace. Look at the language of verse 18.  For you have not come to a mountain that may not be touched, or, you have not come to a mountain that may be touched and to a blazing fire and to darkness and gloom and whirlwind. So the section that begins in verse 18 is explaining to us the motivation behind our obedience to all of those imperatives that have already been listed in Hebrews 12. And I would like to look at these things with you here tonight.  

I. Christians are part of the realm of gospel grace.

First of all, let’s look at verses 18-24. Those verses are talking to us about the assurance that we have as believers.  We live in the days of the New Covenant. We live in those days between the first coming of Christ and the second coming of Christ. We live in the era of the New Covenant, where many of God’s promises that the people of God had been waiting for many hundreds of years have come to fruition.  We live in the New Covenant, not in the Old Covenant in the days of Moses, but in the New Covenant, the days of Christ and His apostles and their successors. And because of that, we have unique assurances as believers. And the author here wants us to think for a few moments about why we ought to pursue the Christian life, always keeping in mind that we are part of the realm of grace.

Notice the contrast that is drawn for us here in verses 18-24. It’s a contrast between two mountains.  It is a picture of two mountains. One is Mt. Sinai, the mountain where God gave the law. The other is Mt. Zion, which is a picture, not of the earthly Jerusalem, but of the heavenly Jerusalem. So the contrast is between Mt. Sinai and the giving of the law, and the heavenly mountain, the city of God’s redeemed people in glory.

Let’s look very briefly at the contrast between these two mountains. If you will turn with me back to Exodus 19. I want you to see the original setting of the giving of the law in Mt. Sinai, because it provides a beautiful picture, or expansion on the picture, that is spoken of here in Hebrews 12. In Exodus 19:16, we read this, “So it came about on the third day when it was morning that there were thunder and lightning flashes and a thick cloud upon the mountain and a very loud trumpet sound. So that all the people who were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. And they stood at the foot of the mountain. Now Mt. Sinai was all in smoke because the Lord descended upon it in fire.  And its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace and the whole mountain quaked violently. When the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and God answered him with thunder. And the Lord came down on Mt. Sinai to the top of the mountain and the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain and Moses went up. Then the Lord spoke to Moses, ‘Go down, warn the people, lest they break through to the Lord to gaze and many of them perish. And also let the priests who come near to the Lord consecrate themselves, lest the Lord break out against them.’ And Moses said to the Lord, ‘The people cannot come up to Mt. Sinai for Thou didst warn us, saying, set bounds about the mountain and consecrate it.’ Then the Lord said to him, ‘Go down and come up again, you and Aaron with you, but do not let the priests and the people break through to come to the Lord lest He break forth upon them.’ So Moses went down to the people and told them.” Subsequently, as you know, God Himself speaks His word to the people.

And if you will turn over to Exodus 20, I want you to see the response of the people. This is the gathered people of Israel hearing the voice of their God. That statement is mind-boggling to take in. This is the gathered people of God hearing the voice of God. Here is their response. Look at verse 18. “And all the people perceived the thunder and the lightning flashes and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking and when the people saw it they trembled and stood at a distance. Then they said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not let God speak to us lest we die.’” They were absolutely awed at hearing God speak. And it scared them to death, to the point that they went to Moses and they said, “Moses, from now on when God has something to say to us, would you mind being the person that delivers the message?  We would rather not hear Him again. We would rather you deliver what He has to say. Let Him speak to you and then you tell us what He said.” It absolutely awed the people.

Now, this is contrasted in Hebrews 12, with Mt. Zion.  No longer this experience of thunder and pyrotechnics, but another kind of awesome scene is held before us.  Turn over to Hebrews 12. Here the picture set forth here of Mt. Zion is the picture of the city of the living God. The heavenly Jerusalem. There are seven components mentioned here from verse 22 down to verse 24 of the Mount that we are coming to. We are coming to Mt. Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.

What is he talking about? He is not talking about the earthly Jerusalem. He is talking about the heavenly Jerusalem. What is that? That is the capital city of the new heavens and the new earth. It is God’s people indwelt by God. We are that city. He dwells in us. It’s us assembled at the great day of the Lord around the throne beginning to praise God forever and ever. This is the mountain that we have come to.

Furthermore, secondly, we are told that we have come to innumerable angels in festal gathering. If ten thousand angels had been present at the giving of the law, we can’t even number the angels who are present at the gathering at Mt. Zion. This is the mass host of heaven at the victory celebration and the marriage supper of the Lamb. That is what we’ve come to, Hebrews says, “We have come to the assembly of the firstborn.” What is that? That’s the third thing that we’ve come to.  The church. The people of God. Why are they called the assembly?  The gathering? The church of the firstborn? Because as they had been united to Christ, the firstborn, so they have become the recipients of the inheritance designated by God for His only begotten Son. That’s the assembly that we have been gathered into. The assembly of the firstborn.

Fourthly, we have come to a judge who is God of all, we are told in Hebrews 12. That is an awesome phrase. We have come to a judge who is God of all. Not an earthly judge, who can make mistakes.   We have come to a judge who is the God of all. He is the God of the universe. He discerns perfectly and most importantly. He vindicated His people. When we think of the idea of a judge, very oftentimes we say, “Oh, we don’t want to face God as our judge.” But if we are in Christ, facing God as judge is an encouragement because it means that the false accusations which the world has made against us as we have been faithful to Christ will be judged as wrong. And we will be vindicated. And so the fact that God is the judge of all the earth is, in fact, something that encourages believers. Notice also, fifthly, we have come to the spirits of just men made perfect. This is speaking of those saints which have already experienced the reality of God’s perfecting spirit in glory. This is Who we are coming to.

Notice again that we have come to Jesus, the Mediator of the New Covenant, to our fully human, fully divine Savior, who is the Mediator of the Covenant of grace.  And the beautiful thing is it is simply His name, Jesus, used here. We have come to Jesus. And this is a tremendous encouragement to us. This is someone who we can recognize. This is someone who has actually entered into the same experience as we. But now He is at the center of the throne being worshiped by the assembled universe. And we have come to that assembly.

And finally, seventh, we have come to the sprinkled blood, not merely to the blood of sacrifices of animals. But we have come to the sprinkled blood of God’s own Son and therefore our consciences are clear, having been sprinkled with that blood.

Now, it is almost impossible to catch, to capture the majesty of this scene, in the contrast of it with the scene prior. But there is a beautiful scene in a hymn that we sing from time to time that gives us just a little dab of the glory. By the way, the reason that we sang the hymns that we sang tonight is that they are singing of these very truths. I Love Thy Kingdom Lord and Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken are celebrating these very realities. But there is another hymn that we sing, oftentimes we sing it at the funeral services of Christians who have lived a bold life of trust in the Lord Jesus. I would like you to turn with me in your hymnals to For All the Saints.  And if you can remember that beautiful tune that Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote,  and look at the last two stanzas,  “But lo, there breaks a yet more glorious day, the saints triumphant rise in bright array. The King of glory passes on His way. Alleluia.  Alleluia.” The picture is of Christ, before all the assembled saints in all the ages, passing in His kingly glory, in a triumphal procession, having displayed all the powers that opposed Him as captive. And having displayed Himself as sovereign ruler of heaven and earth and we are there with Him, watching. 

And it gets better. Look at verse six. “From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast, through gates of pearl, streams in the countless host, singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Alleluia. Alleluia.” You see the picture. All of God’s people, from every corner of the earth, streaming through the gates of heaven, singing, “Praise be to God, Praise be to God.” That is a scene worth waiting for. And the author of Hebrews has said, “That is what you have come to. Not the cringing of the people of God at Sinai, but that is what you have come to, that is what you are part of.”  And so, pursue righteousness. Persevere in your faith. Run the race. Endure the discipline. Endure the trials. Despise it all for the joy set before you. It makes sense, doesn’t it? He is setting the joy before you and then he is saying, “Despise the trials, despise the pain, despise the shame. Run the race because you have come to that mountain. That is your mountain.”

What kind of assurance does that give you as you face the Christian experience? Have you rightly appreciated your gospel benefits? Do you spend time contemplating that this is yours? This is awaiting. How does that change the way that you live from day to day?   

II. The voice of Christ in gospel grace means greater accountability.

Secondly, if you look at verses 25-27, the author gives us another motivation for living the Christian life. Not only the Mount that we have come to, does it give us assurance, but also, there is greater judgment in the New Covenant. In verses 25-27, we are told that just as God spoke with His own voice to the people of God at Mount Sinai, so also has God spoken to people in the New Covenant with His very voice. The voice of Christ in gospel grace means not less accountability, but greater accountability. If we despise His voice speaking to us, we don’t get off lighter. There is a greater judgment. So having just reminded us of the sound of God Almighty’s voice in the ears of Israel at Sinai. Here Hebrews calls us to remember just who it is who is speaking to us in the New Covenant. The same eternal God. Now in the very presence of His Son amongst us. He has lived and dwelt in our own bodies.

And furthermore, this passage reminds us that there is a judgment to come. “Yet once, a little while, and I will shake heaven and earth.” Not simply the earth will be judged, but the whole of the cosmos, the whole of the universe will be judged. God is going to shake heaven. And the image there is the image of sifting and you get the idea, only the unshakeable things. Only those things that will survive the shaking will remain. What a picture. God shaking the whole universe. And only unbreakable things, things made unbreakable by Him will survive that shaking. We must live in view of that final shake-up.  Our lives must reflect what will last. What will go beyond that final shaking. And we can stop right now and ask ourselves, “Do we value in this life things that are going to be utterly destroyed in that final shakeup. Or, is our hope on something that lasts beyond it?” 

You know, there is an old saying that says, “You can’t take it with you.” But I can take you with me.  Human beings who trust in Christ survive this final shake-up. There is a lot of other stuff that we spend a lot of time on in this life that won’t. I think that probably says something about our priorities. It probably is a good pitch for missions. 

III. Grace, gratitude and gospel fear belong together in the Christian life.

One last thing. Look with me in verses 28 and 29. In light of all this, the author summarizes, “Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude by which we may offer to God and acceptable service with reverence and awe for our God is a consuming fire.” Now, what a contrast. We have just been told that we came to Mount Zion, not Mount Sinai. But now we are reminded again that the God of  Mount Zion is a  consuming fire. And so, in light of these things and because we are part of an unshakeable eternal realm, the author of Hebrews says, Let us show gratitude in a kind of service of God which is characterized by what?  By gospel fear.  Awe and reverence.  Saving fear of the Lord. Not the fear of terror. But that fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom.

In the Old Testament, the fear of the Lord is synonymous with true piety. If you had seen the Lord, if you had fellowship with Him, by definition, you feared Him. You have reverential awe of Him. Now, this is not the cringing fear of a slave who expects his master to beat him. This is the reverential awe,  that filial affection of one who looks up to another one and just cannot comprehend the magnificence of that one. And who awes and respects that person.

Oftentimes, today, we speak of intimacy with God as if that could be a casual relationship. But I want to remind you that in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, those who commune with God always wind up in the fetal position. It is an awesome thing to commune with God. And those who know Him best wind up on their faces before Him. Not cringing like slaves, mind you, but awed at the God into whose fellowship and family they have been called. A fear of the Lord is thus the beginning of wisdom. That is the mark of a person who is truly wise, who has the true knowledge. Why? Because, the author of Hebrews tells us in verse 29, because our God is awesome. The eye of faith, you see, sees the Father as He is. He is a consuming fire, and thus rightly is awed by Him. This kind of awe is difficult to even illustrate in our human experience.

Maybe you have had it in a human relationship in an appropriate way with an older, wiser individual of extraordinary talents and commitments that you have been given the privilege of serving with and after many years, sometimes you are awed by that person’s foresight. They seem to be able to anticipate things ahead of time in such ways that it just leaves you breathless. You go, “How could he have known to anticipate that? How could have he been so wise in dealing with that situation?”  

Oftentimes, a great military leader will inspire this kind of awe. Arthur Wellsley, the Duke of Wellington, who went through his whole career as a British commander never losing a battle. Think of it,  never losing a battle in an entire career, having fought against the greatest armies in Europe, having fought against Napoleon’s greatest marshals and against Napoleon himself, never lost a battle. Can you imagine the kind of awe that his men felt just being around the man? How much more is our awe of God. It is the business of every Christian to cultivate a godly gospel filial fear of God. Reverence and awe of our God and Maker and Redeemer.

Jeffrey Wilson says, “This reverential fear of God accompanies every genuine experience of His redeeming love.” That is a beautiful phrase. “This kind of  reverential fear of God accompanies  every genuine experience of His redeeming love.” For the nearer we are brought to God by grace, the greater will be our sense of the infinite gulf which separates the creature from the Creator.  Isn’t that an irony? The closer you are drawn to God, the greater you sense the distinction between His holiness and yours. Between His majesty and yours. Between His perfection and your failures. And so the author of Hebrews lays before us three great motivations for obedience. The assurance of the New Covenant, the certainty of that final judgment, and the fear of God. May God help us to be so motivated. Let’s pray.  

“Our Heavenly Father, we thank You for the truth of Your word. Work it into our lives by the Spirit of Christ. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

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