“For you have not come to what could be touched, to a blazing fire, to darkness, gloom, and storm, to the blast of a trumpet, and the sound of words. Those who heard it begged that not another word be spoken to them, for they could not bear what was commanded: ‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.’ The appearance was so terrifying that Moses said, ‘I am trembling with fear.’ Instead, you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God (the heavenly Jerusalem), to myriads of angels, a festive gathering, to the assembly of the firstborn whose names have been written in heaven, to a Judge, who is God of all, to the spirits of righteous people made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which says better things than the blood of Abel.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
For twelve chapters now, and seven months, we have been joining the author of Hebrews on an explanation and exploration of why God’s new covenant in Christ is greater than the old covenant He made through Moses with the people of Israel. Here, just before his big lightning round finish, he sets the two covenants against each other one last time. This contrast, though, is different from all the rest. Let’s take a look at what he says here and what it means for us.
It has been a while since we’ve tackled a passage quite this long, but there just wasn’t a good way to break this one down into smaller bits. And there’s a lot going on in this passage. We probably aren’t going to address every single aspect of it this morning. If you still have questions when we’re finished, by all means, ask away in the comments.
Let’s start here: One of the challenges skeptics who aren’t terribly familiar with the big story of the Scriptures often bring to the table when given the chance to voice their concerns and questions about the Christian faith is that the God revealed in the Old Testament and the God revealed in the New Testament can’t possibly be the same God. Just consider how much anger and judgment we see from God across the pages of the Old Testament. If you are just reading casually, and only hitting the story highlights, it can sometimes feel like He’s always punishing someone for something. And, oh my, are some of those punishments grisly! I mean, sure, there’s the one-off New Testament story about a couple who face immediate and deadly judgment for lying to the church about how much they were giving in Acts 5. But in the Old Testament we see plagues and natural disasters and immolations and the earth opening to swallow whole families and so on and so forth. They don’t even seem to inhabit the same planet when you compare the two. The fuller truth, of course, is that we see a mountain of examples of God’s grace and mercy and compassion in the Old Testament and quite a lot of judgment in the New Testament, but the perception is there all the same.
In setting the old covenant against the new covenant here, the author of Hebrews almost seems to be leaning a bit into this kind of stereotyping. In describing the old covenant, he takes readers to the foot of Mount Sinai, when Moses was preparing to go up the mountain in order to receive the law from God. Go back right now and read Exodus 19 and 20. Here are links for you to make it easy: Exodus 19 and Exodus 20. Seeing all of that would have been terrifying. There were all the things the author of Hebrews describes here: a blazing fire, darkness, gloom, a storm, the sound of a trumpet blast, the sound of God’s thundering voice. The people were indeed told rather explicitly to not touch the mountain and that if even an animal touched it, the animal was to be put to death by stoning.
Interestingly, his mention of Moses’ expressing his fear is actually taken out of context. The storm theophany through which God revealed Himself when He was giving the Law to Moses and which the author describes in the first part of the passage here is in Exodus 19-20. Moses’ mentioning of his fear is found in Deuteronomy 9 where he was talking about God’s fiery anger with the people after the golden calf incident which doesn’t come until Exodus 32. This isn’t that big of a deal, and it happens within the same 40-day period when the storm theophany was still in place, but it’s still interesting to me.
More to the point, though, why would God reveal Himself like this? Why present Himself so terrifyingly to the people? Didn’t He want to have a relationship with them? Didn’t He want them to want to draw near to Him? Was He still young and high strung, and needed a few more thousand years to chill out a bit? Not at all. As the author of Hebrews himself will remind us of in chapter 13, He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. His character is and has always been constant. Okay, but why all the fire and fury there?
God reveals Himself to us as we are able to process and understand Him. He wants to be understood by us. Well, at different points in human history, we have understood God in different ways. This doesn’t mean He has changed. It is a reflection of the ways our understanding of the world and religion in general has changed. It is further a reflection of just how much of Himself He has revealed to us as well. Israel was coming out of a thoroughly pagan context in Egypt in which they had spent 400 years thinking about gods in a fairly uniform set of terms. God’s presenting Himself to them in something like the person of Jesus would have been completely unintelligible. In this cacophonous show of power, He was presenting Himself to them in the terms they needed at the time. They needed a profound sense of His terrifying holiness and power to quite literally have the fear of God placed in them. They needed to understand that He was far more powerful than any of the Egyptian gods and goddesses with whom they were accustomed. They needed to be scared into obedience. People were long afraid of the gods. God used that to help them start to grasp the kind of God He really is. The more they – and we – came to understand Him, the more He reveals of Himself, progressively helping us get our hearts and minds around His character and identity.
With the advent of the new covenant, He revealed even more of Himself. He no longer needed to scare us into submission. So, His approach was different. With the new covenant, there is a joyfulness to the whole affair. We are going to the Judge of all the Earth, yes, but in Christ, we are made clean to stand before this Judge with confidence in His righteousness covering us. Now, covered in Christ, rather than angrily sending us away in our sinful filthiness, God delightedly embraces us and draws us near. This is nothing like we deserve, but His justice has been satisfied in Jesus’ death and resurrection, so we get His grace and mercy. This is indeed a better covenant. The blood of Jesus, rather than crying out for vengeance like the blood of Abel did, cries out for mercy and grace. It shouts of God’s justice being satisfied, and of the way to eternal life in God’s kingdom being opened to all.
The point at which all of this lands for us comes when we remember the context of this passage. Remember what we talked about yesterday? (Here’s a refresher if you need it.) The author was calling us to not miss out on the grace of God. The two indicators of this becoming a meaningful potential in our lives were unforgiveness (and the bitterness it causes) and a pattern of immorality in our lives. The potent reminder he gives us here is that while avoiding those two paths is vital to our spiritual life and health, the reason we avoid them is not what we first think. It’s not about being and doing good. That is old covenant thinking. That was the kind of fearful thinking the people of Israel were doing. “We need to be good and do good or this God will smite us.” That wasn’t ultimately what God wanted for them, but it was where they were and so He used it.
Under the umbrella of the new covenant, that’s not our way any longer. We are called to avoid those two paths not because by avoiding them we will somehow make ourselves good enough for God. We avoid those two paths because God in Christ died for our sins to give us eternal life. Walking those paths is walking away from this grace and life rather than toward them. It is a reflection that we haven’t yet received them. It is a reflection of a lack of love and gratitude in our hearts. It is a reflection our relationship with Him isn’t where it could or should be. See the difference? The covenant we have with God in Christ isn’t based in rule keeping any longer. It is rooted in grace through faith.
We are not invited to a joyless existence of an automaton following orders, but a joyful celebration of freedom and life. You can be a part of that celebration if you will place yourself in His care. Do it because of the life He promises. Do it also, though, because this world is not as it will always be. Lord willing, we’ll talk more about that tomorrow as we finish up chapter 12.