XV. MOUNT ZION
“For you are not come to a mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, and to blackness, and darkness, and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words; which voice they that heard entreated that no word more should be spoken to them: for they could not endure that which was enjoined, If even a beast touch the mountain, it shall be stoned; and so fearful was the appearance, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake: but you are come to Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable hosts of angels, to the general assembly and Church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just people made perfect, and to Jesus the Mediator of a new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better than that of Abel. See that you refuse not Him that speaks. For if they escaped not, when they refused him that warned them on earth, much more shall not we escape, who turn away from Him that warns from heaven: whose voice then shook the earth: but now He has promised, saying, Yet once more will I make to tremble not the earth only, but also the heaven. And this word, Yet once more, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that have been made, that those things which are not shaken may remain. Why, receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us have grace, whereby we may offer service well-pleasing to God with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” — Heb. xii. 18–29 (R.V.).
Mutual oversight is the lesson of the foregoing verses. The author urges his readers to look carefully that no member of the Church withdraws from the grace of God, that no prison of bitterness troubles and defiles the Church as a whole, that sensuality and worldliness are put away. In the paragraph that comes next he still has the idea of Church fellowship in his mind. But his advice to his readers to exercise supervision over one another yields to the still more urgent warning to watch themselves, and especially to shun the most dangerous even of these evils, which is worldliness of spirit. Esau was rejected; see that you yourselves refuse not Him that speaks.
That the passage is thus closely connected with what immediately precedes may be admitted. But it must be also connected with the entire argument of the Epistle. It is the final exhortation directly based on the general idea that the new covenant excels the former one. As such it may be compared with the earlier exhortation, given before the allegory of Melchizedek introduced the notion that the old covenant had passed away, and with the warning in the tenth chapter which precedes the glorious record of faith’s heroes from Abel to Jesus. As early as the second chapter he warns the Hebrew Christians not to drift away and neglect a salvation revealed in One Who is greater than the angels, through whom the Law had been given. In the later exhortations he adds the notion of the blood of the covenant, and insists, not merely on the greatness, but also on the finality, of the revelation. But in the concluding passage, which now opens before us, he makes the daring announcement that all the blessings of the new covenant have already been fulfilled, and that in perfect completeness and grandeur. We have come to Mount Zion; we have received a kingdom which cannot be shaken. The passage must, therefore, be considered as the practical result of the whole Epistle.
Our author began with the fact of a revelation of God in a Son. But a thoughtful reader will not fail to have observed that this great subject seldom comes to the front in the course of the argument. Reading the Epistle, we seem for a time to forget the thought of a revelation given in the Son. Our minds are mastered by the author’s powerful reasoning. We think of nothing but the surpassing excellence of the new covenant and its Mediator. The greatness of Jesus as High-priest makes us oblivious of His greatness as the Revealer of God. But this is only the glamour cast over us by a master mind. After all, to know God is the highest glory and perfection of man. Apart from a revelation of God in His Son, all other truths are negative; and their value to us depends on their connection with this self-manifestation of the Father. Religion, theology, priesthood, covenant, atonement, salvation, and the Incarnation itself, do not attain a worthy and final purpose except as means of revealing God. It would be a serious misapprehension to suppose that our author had forgotten this fundamental conception. His aim has been to show that the economy of the new covenant is the perfect revelation. God has spoken, not through, but in, the Son. The Divine personality, the human nature, the eternal priesthood, the infinite sacrifice, of the Son are the final revelation of God.
In the sublime contrast between Mount Sinai and Mount Zion the two thoughts are brought together. We have had frequent occasion to point out that the central fact of the new covenant is direct communion with God. Access to God is now open to all people in Christ. We are invited to draw near with boldness to the throne of grace. Jesus has entered as a Forerunner for us within the veil. We have boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus. Yea, we have already actually entered. We are come to Mount Zion. Death has been annihilated. We are now where Christ is. The writer of our Epistle has advanced beyond the perplexity that, in his hour of loneliness, troubled St. Paul, who was in a strait between two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. We are come to Jesus, the Mediator of the new covenant. That great city the heavenly Jerusalem has descended out of heaven from God. The angels pass to and fro as ministering spirits. The names of the first-born are registered in heaven, as possessing already the privilege of citizenship. We must not say that the spirits of the righteous have departed from us; let us rather say that we, by being made righteous, have come to them. We stand now before the tribunal of God, the Judge of all. Jesus has fulfilled His promise to come and receive us to Himself, that where He is, there we may be also.
All these things are contained in access to God. The Apostle explains their meaning and unfolds their glory by contrasting them with the revelation of God on Sinai. We might perhaps have expected him to institute a comparison between them and the incidents of the day of atonement, inasmuch as he has described Christ’s ascension to the right hand of God as the entering of the High-priest into the true holiest place. But the day of atonement was not a revelation of God. The propitiation required antecedently to a revelation was indeed offered. But, as the propitiation was unreal, the full revelation, to which it was intended to lead, was never given. Nothing is said in the books of Moses concerning the people’s state of mind during the time when the high-priest stood in God’s presence. The transaction was so purely ceremonial that the people do not seem to have taken any part in it, beyond gathering perhaps around the tabernacle to witness the ingress and egress of the high-priest. Moreover, no words were spoken either by the high-priest before God, or by God to the high-priest or to the people. No prayer was uttered, no revelation vouchsafed. For these reasons the Apostle goes back to the revelation on Sinai, which indeed instituted the rites of the covenant. With the revelation that preceded the sacrifices of the Law he compares the revelation that is founded upon the sacrifice of Christ. This is the fundamental difference between Sinai and Zion. The revelation on Sinai precedes the sacrifices of the tabernacle; the revelation on Zion follows the sacrifice of the Cross. Under the old covenant the revelation demanded sacrifices; under the new covenant the sacrifice demands a revelation.
From this essential difference in the nature of the revelations a twofold contrast is apparent in the phenomena of Sinai and Zion. Sinai revealed the terrible side of God’s character, Zion the peaceful tenderness of His love. The revelation on Sinai was earthly; that on Zion is spiritual.
There can be no question that the Apostle intends to contrast the terrible appearances on Sinai with the calm serenity of Zion. The very rhythm of his language expresses it. But the key to his description of the one and the other is to be found in the distinction already mentioned. On Sinai the unappeased wrath of God is revealed. Sacrifices are instituted, which, however, when established, evoke no response from the offended majesty of Heaven. Of the holiest place of the old covenant the best thing we can say is that the lightning and thunders of Sinai slumbered therein. The author’s beautiful description of the sunny steep of Zion is framed, on the other hand, in accordance with his frequent and emphatic declaration that Christ has entered the true holiest place, having obtained for us eternal redemption. All that the Apostle says concerning Sinai and Zion gathers around the two conceptions of sin and forgiveness.
The Lord spoke on Sinai out of the midst of the palpable, enkindled fire, of the cloud, and of the thick darkness, with a great voice. All the people heard the voice. They saw “that God does talk with man, and he lives.” They begin to hope. But immediately they bethink them that, if they hear the voice of the Lord any more, they will die. Thus does a guilty conscience contradict itself! Again, the people are invited to come up into the mount when the trumpet shall sound long. Yet, when the voice of the trumpet sounds long and waxes louder and louder, they are charged not to come up to the Lord, lest He break forth upon them. All this appearance of inconsistency is intended to symbolize that the people’s desire to come to God struggled in vain against their sense of guilt, and that God’s purpose of revealing Himself to them was contending in vain with the hindrances that arose from their sins. The whole assembly heard the voice of the Lord proclaiming the Ten Commandments. Conscience-smitten, they could not endure to hear more. They gat them into their tents, and Moses alone stood on the mountain with God, to receive at His mouth all the statutes and judgments which they should do and observe in the land which He would give them to possess. The Apostle singles out for remark the command that, if a beast touched the mountain, it should be stoned to death. The people, he says, could not endure this command. Why not this? It connected the terrors of Sinai with man’s guilt. According to the Old Testament idea of Divine retribution, the beasts of the earth fall under the curse due to man. When God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the days of Noah, He said, “I will destroy both man and beast.” When, again, He blessed Noah after the waters were dried up, He said, “I, behold, I establish My covenant with you and with every living creature that is with you.” Similarly, the command to put to death any beast that might haply touch the mountain revealed to the people that God was dealing with them as sinners. Moses himself, the mediator of the covenant, who aspired to behold the glory of God, feared exceedingly. But his fear came upon him when he looked and beheld that the people had sinned against the Lord their God and made them a molten calf. His fear was not the prostration of nervous terror. Remembering, when he had descended, the awful sights and sounds witnessed on the mountain, he was afraid of the anger and hot displeasure of God against the people, who had done wickedly in the sight of the Lord. Almost every word the Apostle has here written bears closely upon the moral relation between a guilty people and the angry God.
If we turn to the other picture, we at once perceive that the thoughts radiate from the holiest place as from a centre. The passage is, in fact, an expansion of what is said in the ninth chapter, that Christ has entered in once for all into the holiest place, through the greater and more perfect tabernacle. The holiest has widened its boundaries. The veil has been removed, so that the entire sanctuary now forms part of the holy of holies. It is true that the Apostle begins, in the passage under consideration, not with the holiest place, but with Mount Zion. He does so because the immediate contrast is between the two mountains, and he has already stated that Christ entered through a larger tabernacle. The holiest place includes, therefore, the whole mountain of Zion, on which the tabernacle was erected; yea, all Jerusalem is within the precincts. If we extend the range of our survey, we behold the earth sanctified by the presence of the first-born sons of God, who are the Church, and of His myriads, the other sons of God, who also have, not indeed the birthright, but a blessing, even the joyful multitude of the heavenly host. The Apostle describes the angels as keeping festal holiday, for joy to witness the coming of the first-born sons. They are the friends of the Bridegroom, who stand and hear Him, and rejoice greatly because of the Bridegroom’s voice. If, again, we attempt to soar above this world of trials, we find ourselves at once before the judgment-seat of God. But even here a change has taken place. For we are come to a Judge Who is God of all, and not merely to a God Who is Judge of all. Thus the promise of the new covenant has been fulfilled, “I will be to them a God.” If in imagination we pass the tribunal and consider the condition of people in the world of spirits, we recognise there the spirits of the righteous dead, and are given to understand that they have already attained the perfection which they could not have received before the Christian Church had exercised a greater faith than some had found possible to themselves on earth. If we ascend still higher, we are in the presence of Jesus Himself. But He is on the right hand of the Majesty on high, not simply as Son of God, but as Mediator of the new covenant. His blood is sprinkled on the mercy-seat, and speaks to God, but not for vengeance on those who shed it on the Cross, some of whom possibly were now among the readers of the Apostle’s piercing words. What an immeasurable distance between the first man of faith, mentioned in the eleventh chapter, and Jesus, with Whom his list closes! The very first blood of man shed to the earth cried from the ground to God for vengeance. The blood of Jesus sprinkled in heaven speaks a better thing. What the better thing is, we are not told. People may give it a name; but it is addressed to God, and God alone knows its infinite meaning.
From all this we infer that the comparison here made between Sinai and Zion is intended to depict the difference (seen, as it were, in another Bunyan’s dream) between a revelation given before Christ offered Himself as a propitiation for sin and the revelation which God gives us of Himself after the sacrifice of Christ has been presented in the true holiest place.
The Apostle’s account of Mount Zion is followed by a most incisive warning, introduced with a sudden solemnity, as if the thunder of Sinai itself were heard remote. The passage is beset with difficulties, some of which it would be inconsistent with the design of the present volume to discuss. One question has scarcely been touched upon by the expositors. But it enters into the very pith of the subject. The exhortation which the author addresses to his readers does not at first appear to be based on a correct application of the narrative. For the Israelites at the foot of Sinai are not said to have refused Him that spoke to them on the mount. No doubt God, not Moses, is meant; for it was the voice of God that shook the earth. The people were terrified. They were afraid that the fire would consume them. But they had understood also that their God was the living God, and therefore not to be approached by man. They wished Moses to intervene, not because they rejected God, but because they acknowledged the awful greatness of His living personality. Far from rejecting Him, they said to Moses, “Speak you to us all that the Lord our God shall speak to you; and we will hear it and do it.” God Himself commended their words: “They have well said all that they have spoken.” Can we suppose, therefore, that the Apostle in the present passage represents them as actually rebelling, and “refusing Him that spoke”? The word here translated “refuse” does not express the notion of rejecting with contempt. It means “to deprecate,” to shrink in fear from a person. Again, the word “escape,” in its reference to the children of Israel at Sinai, cannot signify “to avoid being punished,” which is its meaning in the second chapter of this Epistle. The meaning is that they could not flee from His presence, though Moses mediated between Him and the people. They could not escape Him. His word “found them” when they cowered in their tents as truly as if they had climbed with Moses the heights of Sinai. For the word of God was then also a living word, and there was no creature that was not manifest in His sight. Yet it was right in the people to deprecate, and desire Moses to speak to them rather than God. This was the befitting spirit under the old covenant. It expresses very precisely the difference between the bondage of that covenant and the liberty of the new. In Christ only is the veil taken away. Where the Spirit of the Lord Jesus is, there is liberty. But, for this reason, what was praiseworthy in the people who were kept at a distance from the bounds placed around Sinai is unworthy and censurable in those who have come to Mount Zion. See, therefore, that you do not ask Him that speaks to withdraw into the thick darkness and terrible silence. For us to deprecate is tantamount to rejection of God. We are actually turning away from Him. But to ignore and shun His presence is now impossible to us. The revelation is from heaven. He Who brought it descended Himself from above. Because He is from heaven, the Son of God is a life-giving Spirit. He surrounds us, like the ambient air. The sin of the world is not the only “besetting” element of our life. The ever-present, besetting God woos our spirit. He speaks. That His words are kind and forgiving we know. For He speaks to us from heaven, because the blood sprinkled in heaven speaks better before God than the blood of Abel spoke from the ground. The revelation of God to us in His Son preceded, it is true, the entrance of the Son into the holiest place; but it has acquired a new meaning and a new force in virtue of the Son’s appearing before God for us. This new force of the revelation is represented by the mission and activity of the Spirit.
The author’s thoughts glide almost imperceptibly into another channel. We can refuse Him that speaks, and turn away from Him in unbelief. But let us beware. It is the final revelation. His voice on Sinai shook the earth. The meaning is not that it terrified the people. The writer has passed from that thought. He now speaks of the effect of God’s voice on the material world, the power of revelation over created nature. This is a truth that frequently meets us in Scripture. Revelation is accompanied by miracle. When the Ten Commandments were spoken by the lips of God to the people, “the whole mount quaked greatly.” But the prophet Haggai predicts the glory of the second house in words which recall to our author the trembling of Mount Sinai: “For thus said the Lord of hosts: Yet once more, it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land; and I will shake all nations, and the desirable things of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with glory, said the Lord of hosts.” It is very characteristic of the writer of this Epistle to fasten on a few salient points in the prophet’s words. He seems to think that Haggai had the scenes that occurred on Sinai in his mind. Two expressions connect the narrative in Exodus with the prophecy. When God spoke on Sinai, His voice shook the earth. Haggai declares that God will, at some future time, shake the heaven. Again, the prophet has used the words “yet once more.” Therefore, when the greater glory of the second house will have transpire, the last shaking of earth and of heaven will take place. The inference is that the word “yet once more” signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken. The whole fabric of nature will perish in its present material form, and the Apostle connects this universal catastrophe with the revelation of God in His Son.
Many very excellent expositors think that our author refers, not to the final dissolution of nature, but to the abrogation of the Jewish economy. It is true that the Epistle has declared the old covenant a thing of the past. But there are two considerations that lead us to adopt the other view of this passage. In the first place, this Epistle does not describe the abrogation of the old covenant as a violent catastrophe, but rather as the passing away of what had grown old and decayed. In the second place, the coming of the Lord is elsewhere, in writings of that age, spoken of as accompanied by a great convulsion of nature. The two notions go together in the thoughts of the time. “The day of the Lord will come as a thief, in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall be dissolved with fervent heat, and the earth and the works that are therein shall be burned up.”
We connect the words “as things that have been made” with the next clause: “that those things which are not shaken may remain.” It is not because they have been made that the earth and the heaven are removed; and their place will not be occupied by uncreated things only, but also by things made. The meaning is that nature will be dissolved when it has answered its purpose, and not till then. Earth and heaven have been made, not for their own sakes, but in order that out of them a new world may be created, which will never be removed or shaken. This new world is the kingdom of which the King-Priest is eternal Monarch. As we partake in His priesthood, we share also in His kingship. We enter into the holiest place and stand before the mercy-seat, but our absolution is announced and confirmed to us by the Divine summons to sit down with Christ in His throne, as He has sat down with His Father in His throne.
Let us therefore accept the kingdom. But beware of your peculiar danger, which is self-righteous pride, worldliness, and the evil heart of unbelief. Rather let us seek and get that grace from God which will make our royal state a humble service of worshipping priests. The grace which the Apostle exhorts his reader to possess is much more than thankfulness. It includes all that Christianity presents as an honor to counteract and vanquish the special dangers of self-righteousness. Such priestly service will be well-pleasing to God. Offer it with pious resignation to His sovereign will, with awe in the presence of His holiness. For, while our God proclaims forgiveness from the mercy-seat as the worshippers stand before it, He is also a consuming fire. Upon the mercy-seat itself rests the Shechinah.
 Chap. iv. 16.
 Chap. vi. 20.
 Chap. x. 19.
 Phil. i. 23.
 Rev. xxi. 10.
 John xiv. 3.
 Gen. vi. 7.
 Gen. ix. 9, 10.
 Deut. ix. 16, 19.
 Reading καὶ μυριάσιν, ἀγγέλων πανηγύρει, καὶ ἐκκλησίᾳ πρωτοτόκων (xii. 22, 23). This disconnected use of μυριάς is amply justified by Deut. xxxiii. 2, Dan. vii. 10, and Jude 14. Besides, πανήγυρις is precisely the word to describe the assemblage of angels and distinguish them from the Church.
 κριτῇ θεῷ πάντων.
 Chap. viii. 10.
 Chap. xi. 40.
 Deut. v. 27, 28.
 παραιτησάμενοι (xii. 25).
 Chap. ii. 3.
 “The Bible finds me,” said Coleridge.
 Exod. xix. 18. In his citation of this passage our author gives up the Septuagint, which has “And all the people were greatly amazed.”
 Haggai ii. 6, 7.
 2 Pet. iii. 10.
 Chap. xii. 28.
 Rev. iii. 21.
 λατρεύωμεν (xii. 28).
From the Epistle to the Hebrews by Thomas Charles Edwards, D.D., Principal of the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. Printed by Hazell, Watson & Viney, Ld., London and Aylesbury in MCMIV. Digitally produced by Marcia Brooks, Colin Bell, Nigel Blower and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net. Lightly updated to the language of the 21st century by D. N. Pham. (c) 2013.
Insights of the past for the present
To the Hebrews - T.C. Edwards
ON THE BOOK SHELF
May your insights be worthy.