“Choose the Right Mountain”
(Hebrews 12:18-24 – Pentecost 14 – September 15, 2019)
Hebrews 12:18-24 – For you have not come to the mountain that may 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, so that those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore. (For they could not endure what was commanded: “And if so much as a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned or shot with an arrow.” And so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I am exceedingly afraid and trembling.”) But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.
Dear fellow-Redeemed in Christ Jesus:
In mountain climbing, there is a phenomenon called “false summit.” A false summit is a lesser peak of a great mountain. From lower elevations it can look great and block sight of the true summit, and even lead climbers off course. But when you are on the true summit, you can look down on the false summit that appeared so impressive from below, and say: “I would never trade that for the view I have here on the true summit.”
Our text puts before us two summits and says, “Choose the Right Mountain.” One of them is a “false summit.” It is called Mount Sinai. It may be a stopping place along the way, but only that. It is not the true summit where God would have His people settle. The true summit is Mount Zion. There, God would have us make our true home.
1) Mount Sinai is just a stopping place
First, consider how Mount Sinai is just a stopping place. In Old Testament history, we are familiar with the account of God bringing His people out of their bondage to slavery in Egypt. He gave them His Word that He was bringing them to the Promised Land. On the way to their destination, God had His people stop for a while at Mount Sinai.
There, the Lord made a covenant – a promise of faithfulness to His people. In Exodus 19:4-6 He told them: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” However, this covenant was not altogether comforting. Because it depended on the people’s faithfulness and obedience to God’s Law. As God reminded them of His faithfulness, He also required their holiness if they were to benefit from His blessing. And if they were not faithful, they would lose His blessing.
When God gave the terms of that covenant of Law at Mount Sinai, it was terrifying. God had Moses climb Mount Sinai, to receive His message to bring back to the people. God came down in unapproachable holiness and glory. In Exodus 19:16-19 we read that God descended with “thunderings and lightnings, and a thick cloud on the mountain; and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled… Now Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire. Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. And when the blast of the trumpet sounded long and became louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by voice.” As God spoke to Moses, no one was allowed to touch the mountain, or he would die. There, God gave the people His Law. He taught them about His holy nature, and how He expected them to live as His holy nation. He taught them about the reality of sin and its consequences of judgment and death. That occasion at Mt. Sinai left the people trembling in fear before Him.
But now in our text, the writer to the Hebrews reminds believers in Jesus Christ: “You have not come to the mountain that may 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, so that those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore.”
Why do we need a reminder today that this is not the mountain to which we have come to settle? Because ironically, it is easy for us to fall back on Mount Sinai as a place of comfort and security – a place we might want to try to make our dwelling with God! When it comes to our relationship to God, there is that part of us that wants to believe we can measure up to His demands for holiness. There is that part of us that wants to believe we can fulfill the conditions of His Law, and thus earn the blessings of His Kingdom. There is that part of us that wants to believe we can make it to heaven by climbing the Mountain of God’s Law.
At times we may feel closer to God or more accepted by Him, because of something in us. Perhaps we have had a good day, we have felt good-natured, we have done good things, we have had good relationships with people, and everything seems to be going great. It is easy to believe that this is proof that we are in God’s favor, as our life seems so in line with His Law.
But other times, we may not feel so close to God or accepted by Him, because of something in us. Perhaps we have not had a good day, we have not felt good natured, we have not done good things, we have failed in our relationships, and everything seems to be going wrong. It is easy then to believe that this is proof that we are not in God’s favor, as our life is so out of line with His Law.
How often, one way or another, we are drawn to Mount Sinai to find comfort in the covenant of the Law. When we feel innocent, we seek comfort thereby that we are in God’s favor. But when we feel guilty, when the Law shows our sin against God and man, we seek comfort in that same Law; seeking reassurance of God’s favor by making promises and trying harder to obey.
But what does God’s Word teach? Romans 3:19-20 says: “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” The Law can only show us our sin, and the wages of sin which is death. The Law can only show us how far we fall short of God’s heavenly glory (Romans 3:23; 6:23). The law can only condemn the sinner to hell.
This is why the writer to the Hebrews, earlier in this chapter, encourages us to keep looking to Jesus alone as our Savior: “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). In Jesus, we have not come to a mountain of darkness and gloom, and trumpet blasts of judgment we cannot bear to hear since we cannot live up to God’s holiness. Jesus is our Savior from sin. He is the one who makes us holy and right with God. Jesus has answered the fearful thunderings of God’s Law at Sinai with His perfect obedience on our behalf, and His own sacrifice on the cross to cleanse us of all sin.
Galatians 3:24-26 says: “Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.”
2) Mount Zion is our true home
Mount Sinai served only as a stopping place for God’s Law to show us our need for the Savior who makes us holy. But Mount Zion is our true home, where God comforts us by His Gospel of forgiveness, where He has brought us to dwell forever in true holiness.
When it says, “you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,” it is showing us the true summit on which we now stand as believers in God’s Son. In the Bible, Mount Zion is the name of the mountain on which Jerusalem and God’s temple were built. Sometimes, Zion represents the Church on earth. Here, it is a symbol of “the heavenly Jerusalem.” As we trust in our Savior Jesus, we already stand with one foot in that eternal city, even as members of His Church on earth. This is how Jesus spoke: “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life” (John 6:47); and, “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).
Since Jesus has brought us to eternal life and a claim on Mount Zion, why would we want to turn back to the false summit of Mount Sinai? Why should we trust in a holiness of our own under God’s Law, when God is counting Jesus’ holiness to us as our free ticket to eternal life? On Mount Sinai was written the Law of God that wrote off all our deeds as evil, leaving us trembling in fear of judgment and death. But on Mount Zion, we have received God’s Gospel of grace and forgiveness in Jesus, and our names are written in His Book of Life (Revelation 3:5).
As it says, we have come “to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.” Abel’s innocent blood cried out to God for justice when his brother Cain killed him (Genesis 4:10). But the innocent blood of Jesus speaks a better word. His blood cried out from the cross: “Justice is fulfilled! It is finished!” (John 19:30). God sees the blood of His Son shed for us sinners, and the Judge of all declares us forgiven and righteous for Jesus’ sake.
Jesus is “the Mediator of the new covenant,” that puts no fear in the hearts of sinners, but only peace and joy. It is God’s covenant of grace, which He established all the way back with Adam and Eve, who first heard the promise of the Savior. It is the covenant of grace God repeated to Abraham and his descendants, through whom the Savior would come. It is the covenant of grace God wants His people of all time to take comfort in.
What do we do when all can see before us is the dark cloud-covered summit of Sinai, where no living thing was allowed as God gave His holy Law? Let us turn to God’s Gospel of grace, and take comfort in His gift of salvation and eternal life in Jesus; let us turn to the true glory of Mount Zion. On this mountain God makes Himself approachable, with a smile as tender as the Baby who lay in the manger, as humble as the Servant who knelt to wash the feet of sinners. In the person of Jesus God dwells among us “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). He says: “Comfort, yes, comfort My people! …. Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned; for she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-2).
In contrast to the barren and empty Mount Sinai, here Mount Zion is described as a joyful city thronging with people and angels. It says we have come “to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven.” Through faith in His Son, God treats us as “the firstborn” – first in line to inherit His Kingdom.
On the heavenly Mount Zion, the angels are pictured circling the throne of God, singing joyfully of His salvation for men in Jesus: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:12). On the heavenly Mount Zion there is “a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!'” (Revelation 7:9-10). There it is said: “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God” (Revelation 21:3).
Let us not lose sight of the true summit! When Mount Sinai looms large before us with the requirements of the Law, let God’s Gospel remind us of the place He has given us on Mount Zion, saved by His grace, cleansed of all sin, clothed in Christ’s holiness. This alone will give us comfort in life and death. From the true summit, we can look down on that false summit and say, “Why would I ever want trade that for the view I have up here on the true summit?”
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and shall be forevermore. Amen.