Hebrews 12(14–29)

Introduction

In the passage we studied last week, we learned that the troubles and trials we face in this life do not come to us by chance, but they come to us from our Heavenly Father, who uses the troubles and trials of life to train his people. Just as responsible parents train their children and teach them the things they need to know for life, so our Heavenly Father trains us by means of our trials. And that means the troubles and trials we face are not signs that God hates us, but they’re signs that he loves us. As the book of Proverbs says, the Lord disciplines those he loves. When he disciplines us, he’s treating us as his children. And while discipline may not seem pleasant when we’re going through it, and though it’s hard to bear and it’s painful, nevertheless it’s able to produce something good in our lives, because it leads to righteousness and peace. In other words, God uses the trials we face to train us so that we learn more and more to do what is right.

And that message was an important message for those who first read this letter, because they were facing troubles and trials of their own. They were suffering for the faith. Some had been publicly insulted and persecuted. Some had been imprisoned. Some had their property taken from them. They were suffering. And because of what they were suffering, they were being tempted to give up the faith and to return to the old covenant religion of the Old Testament.

And throughout this letter to them, the writer has been exhorting them not to abandon the faith and not to turn away from Christ, because what they have in Christ is so much better than what they had before. So, why go back to that old covenant religion, when what you have in Christ is so much better? That’s what he’s been saying since chapter 1.

But in chapter 12 he took this new approach to their troubles and trials, when he made clear to his readers that the suffering they were experiencing did not come to them by chance, but God sent it to them for a good and holy purpose. And we too need to remember that. Whatever we suffer in this life does not come to us by chance, but it comes to us by God’s fatherly hand and it’s for a good and holy purpose.

And so, we come to today’s passage, where the writer begins to wrap up what he’s been saying and he starts to bring his letter to a close. And so, in the first part of today’s passage — verses 14 to 17 — the writer once again exhorts his readers not to abandon the faith. And then, in the second part of today’s passage — verses 18 to 29 — he, in a sense, sums up what’s he’s been saying since chapter 1, because once again he makes clear that what his readers have in Christ is better than what they had before. Life under the new covenant is so much better than life under the old covenant. We don’t live under the shadow of Mount Sinai, because, through faith in Christ, we have come to God in heaven.

Verses 14 to 17

But let’s turn first to verses 14 to 17 where he tells his readers — and that includes us — to make every effort to pursue peace with all men and to be holy.

The words ‘make every effort’ tell us that this is something we’re to work at. We’re to strive for this. This is something we’re to seek earnestly and we’re not to pursue it in a casual, lazy or indifferent manner.

And while it’s true that believers should do everything they can to live peacefully with everyone, and while we’re commanded to love even our enemies, the emphasis here is probably on striving for peace with our fellow believers. When the world is against us because of what we believe, the last thing believers should be doing is to fight among ourselves and to quarrel and to despise one another. Instead, believers should love and serve one another and live peacefully with one another. We’re not enemies, but we’re fellow believers.

And as well as striving for peace, we must strive for holiness. We’re to strive for sanctification. That means, relying on the Holy Spirit, we’re to become more and more willing and able to do God’s will here on earth and to obey his commands. And the writer warns us that without holiness no-one will see the Lord.

Now, let’s be clear. We’re justified — pardoned and accepted by God — by faith alone and not by what we do. So, the moment we trust in Christ, we’re pardoned and accepted by God. We’re no longer under condemnation, because God has accepted us for the sake of Christ who paid for our sins with his life and who shares with us his perfect righteousness. So, we’re justified by faith alone and not by the things we do.

However, while we’re justified by faith alone, true faith does not remain alone, because believers are filled with the Holy Spirit who begins to work in us to will and to do God’s will more and more. And so, it becomes our heart’s desire to obey our loving heavenly Father.

And that means, the good deeds we do in obedience to God our Father are like signs which demonstrate that we belong to God. A shepherd marks his sheep to show that they belong to him; and the good deeds we do are the marks which show that we belong to God. And that’s why the writer says that without holiness no one can see the Lord, because the person who does not care about obedience and does not strive after holiness clearly does not belong to God. That person’s life indicates that he’s not a believer. And those who don’t believe will never see God.

But if you’re a believer, then you’re meant to make it your aim in life to obey your heavenly Father so that you will honour him in all you do and say. And at the end of your life, the Lord will welcome you into his presence with the words, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’

So, we’re to strive for peace and holiness. And the writer goes on to say that we’re to see to it that no-one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and to defile many.

When he refers to missing the grace of God, or falling short of it, he’s warning his readers about abandoning the faith. So, don’t turn away from God, because if you do, then you’ll be turning away from his grace by which we’re saved.

And when he refers to a bitter root, he probably has in mind what we read in Deuteronomy 29 where Moses warned the Israelites not to turn away from the Lord and not to bow down to idols. The person who does so will be like a root which produces bitter poison, because it will lead to trouble. And the writer of Hebrews is saying to believers in every generation that we must be careful lest we turn away from God, because the consequences will be bitter.

And then he warns us by reminding us of Esau, who was Isaac’s firstborn son. And since he was Isaac’s firstborn son, he was entitled to receive special privileges and blessings. But do you remember the story from Genesis 25? Esau came home after being out hunting. And he was famished. He demanded some stew from his younger brother, Jacob. ‘First sell me your birthright’, Jacob replied. That is: Hand over to me your inheritance rights as the firstborn son. And Esau agreed to do what Jacob had asked. And the story ends with the words that Esau therefore despised his birthright. He treated it as something worthless and he was prepared to give it up for only a meal.

And then, when he was older, Esau failed to receive his father’s blessing, because his father blessed Jacob instead of Esau. And Esau went to his father and said, ‘Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me too, father!’ But there was only one blessing to give and Esau had missed out on it. And the writer to the Hebrews tells us that Esau could bring about no change of mind, though he sought the blessing with tears.

Now, why does the writer bring up the story of Esau? It’s to warn us not to despise the blessing which God offers us which is salvation through faith in his Son. Don’t despise that blessing, because there is no other way for us to be saved apart from through faith in Christ. In order to get relief from his hunger, Esau gave up his birthright. And perhaps in order to get relief from our troubles, we may be tempted to give up the faith. But don’t be like Esau. Don’t throw it all away. Keep trusting in Christ and stand firm in the faith.

Before moving on, notice that the writer says in verse 15 that we’re to see to it that no one misses the grace of God; and he says in verse 16 that we’re to see to it that no one is like Esau. He means we’re to watch out for one another. See to it that you yourself do not miss the grace of God and become like Esau. And see to it that your fellow believer does not miss out on the grace of God and become like Esau. Instead of fighting with one another, we’re to watch over each other for our good.

Verses 18 to 21

And we’re to realise what we now have in Christ. And that’s the point of verses 18 to 29 where the writer makes clear that life under the new covenant is so much better than life under the old covenant. And since what we have in Christ is so much better, then we’re not to abandon the faith or turn away from it.

So, he first of all describes in verses 18 to 21 life under the old covenant. He refers to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire. He’s referring to Mount Sinai. After Moses and the Israelites escaped from Egypt, the Lord led them through the wilderness to Mount Sinai in order to establish his covenant with them. And at that time, when the Lord came down on the mountain to meet with them, there was darkness and gloom and storm and a trumpet blast. And though the mountain could be touched, the Lord forbade the people from touching it, because none of them apart from the ones chosen by God could come near to God on the mountain. The rest had to remain at a distance. And he warned them that whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death.

And we read in Exodus 19 how there was thunder and lightning and a thick cloud covered the mountain and there was a loud trumpet blast. And everyone in the camp trembled. And the mountain was covered in smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. And the smoke billowed up like smoke from a furnace and the whole mountain trembled violently. And the sound of the trumpet got louder and louder. And the Lord came down and gave Moses the Ten Commandments, which formed the terms of the covenant, because the beginning of the Commandments set out what God had done for the people to rescue them; and then the rest of the commandments set out what the Lord required of his people.

And in Exodus 20 we read that, when the people saw the thunder and lightning and when they heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. And they stayed at a distance and said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.’ They were so terrified that they were afraid to hear the voice of God.

And the writer to the Hebrew refers to all of this in verses 18 to 21. He even adds at the end some words from Deuteronomy 9 where Moses was remembering the incident with the golden calf. And the quoted words make clear that not only were the people terrified, but so was Moses.

So, that’s what it was like when God established the old covenant with Moses and the Israelites. It was a terrifying occasion and the people trembled. And everything about their experience at Mount Sinai told them that they had to stay away. They could not draw near to God, but they had to remain at a distance. Everything about their experience at Sinai said to them that they could not come to God.

Verses 22 to 24

And so the writer goes on to describe life under the new covenant and it’s all about coming to God. So, we have now come to Mount Zion. Mount Zion is the mountain on which Jerusalem was built. But he’s not referring to the earthly Mount Zion. He’s referring to the heavenly Mount Zion, where God dwells and from where he rules over all that he has made.

And our writer says this is where we have already come. So, he’s not referring to what will happen in the future, when we die or when Christ comes again. He’s referring to something that has already taken place. And really he’s saying what the Apostle Paul says in Ephesians, where he says that we have been raised with Christ and we have been seated with Christ in the heavenly realms. And he’s saying what the Apostle Paul says in Philippians, where he tells us that our citizenship is in heaven. Though for the time being we continue to live in this world, we nevertheless belong by faith to heaven above. And so, whenever we first believed, we came to God in heaven above.

And we have also come by faith to thousands and thousands of angels in joyful assembly. Whenever we read about heaven, we read about angels, surrounding God’s throne, where they worship him day and night. Think of Isaiah’s vision of heaven and the angels who called to one another, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty.’ Or think of John’s vision in Revelation 5 when he saw into heaven and he heard there the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands and ten thousand times ten thousand. And they encircled God’s throne and worshipped him. And since we have come by faith to God in heaven, then we have come to the angels too.

And he says we’ve come to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. In Exodus 4 the Lord refers to the people of Israel as his firstborn son. It was a way of conveying their special status as his people and it also meant that they were loved by God. And the writer to the Hebrews is using the same term to refer to the church. So, we’re God’s special people. And even though the church is on earth, each of the members are enrolled in heaven so that we’re known there. Maybe you belong to a club. And because you belong to it, and your name is listed in the membership book, you’re allowed in to the clubhouse. Well, by faith, we’ve come to belong to God’s special, chosen people and our names are listed in heaven and the right of entrance has been given to us.

And not only have we come to the angels and the church, but we’ve come to God, who is the judge of all men. Do you see that in verse 23? When the Israelites gathered at Mount Sinai and God descended on the mountain, the people were told to stay away. But new covenant believers are not required to stay away, because the Lord Jesus Christ died to bring us to God. And so, we’re able to come to God because Christ has opened up the way for us.

And we have also come to the souls of righteous men made perfect. He’s now referring to believers who have died. And therefore they’ve already been made perfect and they’re been glorified in the presence of God. In Revelation 7, the Apostle John describes what he saw in heaven and how there was a great multitude that no one could count from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing before the throne of God and in front of the Lamb who is Jesus Christ. And they were wearing white robes and they were worshipping God. These are believers who died and who have gone into the presence of God to await the resurrection of their bodies. And the white robes signify how they have been washed and cleansed and pardoned and made righteous because of Christ who shed his blood for us. And since we have come by faith to God in heaven, then we have come to the saints too.

And we’ve also come to Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant by which God promises to remember our sins no more. And Jesus is the mediator of this new covenant because he’s the one who established it. He put it into action. He put it into action by his death on the cross, when he gave up his life to pay for our sins and to open up for us a fountain of forgiveness which will never run out.

And therefore we have come, not only to Jesus the mediator, but we’ve come to his sprinkled blood which speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. Cain killed Abel; and afterwards the Lord said that his blood was crying out. Was it crying out for vengeance? Was it crying out about his innocence? In either case, Christ’s blood speaks a better word, because Christ’s blood speaks of forgiveness. His blood covers our sin and guilt so that we’re declared innocent in the sight of God.

And so, by faith we have come, not to Mount Sinai, but to the heavenly Mount Zion and to the heavenly Jerusalem. We now belong, not to this world, but to heaven above. And together with the angels above and believers around the world and the saints in glory, we have come to God the judge through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, which was established in his blood and which speaks to us of forgiveness. This is what life under the new covenant is like. Instead of having to stay away from God, we have come to God.

Verses 25 to 29

And since this is true, why would we ever turn away from Christ who has brought us near to God? And so, the author warns us once again in verse 25 that we’re to see to it that we don’t refuse him who speaks. And he adds that if the Israelites did not escape when they did not listen to God when he warned them on earth, then how much less will we escape his judgment if we turn away from the Lord who warns us from heaven.

And the writer goes on to speak about a day which is coming, when God will not only shake the earth, as he did when the Israelites gathered at Mount Sinai, but he will shake the earth and the heavens. He’s referring to the great day when Christ comes again with glory and power to judge the living and the dead. And the world as we know it will be shaken. It will be destroyed. All the kingdoms of the earth, which now seem so powerful and mighty, will be brought down and will be destroyed. And all who refused to trust in the Lord will be judged and condemned and sent away to be punished. So, this world will be shaken and destroyed and every earthly kingdom will come to nothing and every person who did not believe will be condemned and punished. The world as we know it will be shaken.

But those who believe are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken. He’s referring now to God’s eternal kingdom which will never end. And God’s believing people will live with him in his eternal kingdom forever and forever.

And so, the writer calls us to be thankful. And we’re to be thankful because we’re receiving such a kingdom, a kingdom that cannot be shaken, but which will last forever. After this world is destroyed, we’ll live with God forever in his everlasting kingdom.

And then the writer adds that we’re to do what? The NIV says we’re to worship God acceptably. But the word translated ‘worship’ also means ‘serve’. When the word is translated ‘worship’, then it means we’re to worship God in church with reverence and awe. When the word is translated ‘serve’, then it means we’re to serve God in our daily lives with reverence and awe. And since the writer goes on to refer to everyday activities like loving one another and showing hospitality and honouring marriage, then it’s perhaps more likely that we’re to translate the word as ‘serve’.

So, by faith, we’ve come to God in heaven. We live our lives here on earth as citizens of heaven above. We live our lives before the face of God. And therefore, we’re to serve God in our daily lives with reverence and awe, remembering that our God is a consuming fire. That is to say, he will consume with fire all those who refuse to believe in his Son for salvation; and he will consume with fire all those who abandon the faith and turn away from Christ the Saviour. He will consume them with fire, because as we learned in chapter 10, there is no sacrifice for sins left for those who have rejected Christ. And so, to avoid his consuming fire, to escape his holy wrath, we must continue to trust in Christ, our Great High Priest, who offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins so that we may come boldly to God in heaven above.