Written by 1:35 pm Bible Studies, Hebrews

A Tale of Two Mountains | Hebrews 12:18-24

I don’t know how many of you have read Charles Dickens’, A Tale of Two Cities, but it was one of the classics I was required to read in high school.

It was set during the French Revolution in the 1780s. Two men, Darnay and Carton, are the focus. Carton was an unscrupulous British lawyer, and Darnay was a French aristocrat. They both bore an incredible resemblance to each other. So similar was their resemblance that Carton was able to get Darnay acquitted from indictments that he was a French spy while he was living abroad in England by casting reasonable doubt upon the jury that they couldn’t tell them apart, so how did they know that Carton wasn’t the spy instead of Darnay. As fate would have it, they both fell in love with the same woman, Lucy, and she chose Darnay.

Upon returning to France, Darnay was arrested by the revolutionaries for no crime except being wealthy. When Carton heard of his arrest, he conceived a plot to break Darnay out of prison and take his place. He reasoned that it was the best way that he could love Lucy, by dying in her husband’s place and perhaps giving lasting meaning to his wretched life. And he was successful.

Carton’s last words were, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

I don’t want to make too many parallels because that’s not the point, but Carton’s statement about a better rest is where I’ll draw at least one. Better rest. If you’ve followed this study since the beginning, you know the author of Hebrews brought this up earlier in the letter. Enter the LORD’s rest. Carton entered a better rest by dying to himself, and so do we.

And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
– Luke 9:23 (ESV)

We enter the LORD’s rest by deciding between two mountains. This text represents the author’s final contrast and warning and brings both mountains into view. On one hand, we have Mount Sinai, and on the other, Mount Zion. It’s the Old Covenant and New Covenant. Let’s walk through the comparison.

Mount Sinai

18 For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest 19 and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. 20 For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”
– Hebrews 12:18-21 (ESV)

This is Sinai. The author didn’t name it, but everything he described took place there. Let’s look closely at how the author describes Sinai.

For you have not come to what may be touched. In other words, the kingdom you seek is not of this world. This may give a small clue into what troubled these believing Jews. They were raised believing that the Messiah would come and reestablish the throne of David in Jerusalem in their day. They were taught that the Messiah would drive out the Romans and reinstate the Promised Land to its rightful Jewish owners and then peace would finally come.

But the author reminded them that the kingdom of God isn’t of this world. At their moment in history and today, God’s kingdom on earth is not bound to physical land and geographic borders because it is a spiritual kingdom. Sinai represents a promise for a kingdom hemmed in with borders and with land and an ethnic people. The author points out, first off, that the New Covenant isn’t about that. You have not come to what may be touched.

A blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. Do you know what was on top of Mount Sinai while Israel watched? Everything described here. It was a terror to witness. Fire, smoke, dark clouds, lightning, and then imagine all of those things swirling around the top of the mountain because tempest means whirlwind. This was a frightful sight, and the Israelites watched Moses walk up into that and not return for forty days. Is it a wonder that they believed he was dead when they asked Aaron to lead and make an idol for them?

But that wasn’t all. The trumpet and voice only added to the fear. They created such terror in the hearts of the Israelites that they begged God to stop speaking to them.

18 Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.”
– Exodus 20:18-19 (ESV)

Even Moses was terrified. Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”

So, Mount Sinai represents a dreadful, fearful, burdensome, heavy command that no one can hope to keep. And we know very well that although Israel agreed to the covenant and said they would do everything they were told, they did not. But it wasn’t only a matter that they did not, but actually, they could not keep it. Remember Romans 5:20? The law came in to increase the trespass, not decrease it!

I’ve been a counselor to several conflicts that arose because the expectations and boundaries of each person involved weren’t clear to the other. Once that fact becomes clear to me, I work to help each party identify their expectations and boundaries and express them clearly so that, hopefully, they’ll each stop trespassing them. In a similar way, prior to Sinai, the Law of the LORD wasn’t clear to anyone. Sinai made His law clear, but what we discovered is that we can’t keep it. The Law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul, but Romans 7 uncovers the ugly truth about us.

7 What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. 9 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. 10 The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11 For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.
– Romans 7:7-12 (ESV)

The Law is perfect, but we are ruined by sin, and Sinai only puts a very definite period on that statement.

Mount Zion

22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
– Hebrews 12:22-24 (ESV)

Notice the difference? This is the city of the living God! This is the city to which Abraham looked forward. This is the city not built with human hands. This city is the heavenly Jerusalem! This is the city from where Moses received copies of the plans to build the Tabernacle. The earthly Tabernacle and Temple were patterned after the Tabernacle and Temple in the heavenly Jerusalem! King David reigned from the earthly Jerusalem, King Jesus reigns from the heavenly Jerusalem!

Look at the gathered angels. They are uncountable and in festal gathering. Based on how other translations word this verse, this seems to be a joyful, celebratory public gathering. To put it simply, the angels are gathered to celebrate! It represents a new way of life that’s marked by unending celebration. This city is built on joyful gatherings.

The next gathering is of the firstborn. Who are these firstborn?

Then you shall say to Pharaoh, “Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son,”
– Exodus 4:22 (ESV)

This seems to tie back to the great cloud of witnesses in Hebrews 12:1. These are the patriarchs, matriarchs, and the faithful people of Israel who went before us and died without seeing the Promise fulfilled. These are the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven. There was a time when I taught that this was the church because we are adopted into the LORD’s family and given firstborn status and our names are recorded in the Book of Life. That’s true and is found in other passages, but I no longer believe that about this verse. This letter was written to believing Jews tempted to return to the Old Covenant. Upon hearing the word firstborn, their minds would jump to Israel. Therefore, I believe the author’s intent is that these are the faithful ones who endured from Israel’s history.

It then says we come to God, the judge of all. Don’t take lightly the fact that we are welcomed into the judge’s home. We who were once enemies have been drawn near. We who deserved death have been given life – not by our own merit but by Christ’s merit. He paid the penalty of our sins so that we might gain entrance into this joyful assembly at Mount Zion.

The next gathering is that of the spirits of the righteous made perfect. If I may be so bold, this is the Church. We are those who have been made righteous by the precious blood of the perfect Lamb of God. Not only that, but eschatologically, this is an accurate statement. These spirits have not yet received their new bodies. We are awaiting our resurrection until Christ returns. When we depart this life, our bodies go to the grave, and our spirits enter into Christ’s presence. There, we wait until the appointed time, to return with Christ to earth.

It was also about these that Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied, saying, “Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgment on all and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him.”
– Jude 1:14 (ESV)

The phrase “holy ones” is hagios, which is usually translated as saints. We will come back with Him, and when we do, we will receive new bodies.

in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.
– 1 Corinthians 15:52 (ESV)

The gathering of the spirits of the righteous made perfect is undoubtedly His Church.

But best of all, Jesus is there. We will be with the one who died, who lives, and who intercedes for us until it’s time to come back, Jesus Christ our great and final High Priest who mediates the New Covenant!

I may have said this before (I can’t remember), but it’s worth saying again. I’ve spent considerable time meditating on Christ’s mediation. There was a time when I viewed Christ’s mediation more along the lines of a defense attorney. As in, every time I dropped the ball and walked in some kind of sin, He was there to defend me before the Father to remind Him that my sins are paid… PLEASE DON’T KILL HIM! I no longer think that way. I don’t believe Jesus is constantly defending me before an angry Judge. You and I don’t need a defense before the Judge since the penalty has already been paid. All of our penalty was poured out on Jesus when He died on the cross. No judgment for my sins remains for me to experience, so I don’t need a defense lawyer.

Instead, we have a High Priest, and He is praying for me. He’s praying for you. He’s praying for our endurance. He’s praying for our boldness. He’s praying that we’ll walk in the good works that the Father prepared for us to walk in (Ephesians 2:10). And the Holy Spirit works out His High Priestly prayers in our lives in real time. This is why it’s important to be filled with the Holy Spirit! And since He is working out the intercession of Christ in my life, being filled with the Spirit becomes the most important aspect of my waking moments every day. Read the Word, pray without ceasing, and BE FILLED WITH THE SPIRIT!

Then in the last statement of this contrast, we come to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. I have to be honest and say that the Word of God doesn’t say much about Abel’s blood except in Genesis 4:10 where the LORD said his blood was crying out from the ground. So, in the context of comparing these two mountains, it would seem that the author means that Abel’s blood cries out for justice. He was murdered by his brother, Cain. The Law cries out for justice against murder. But Christ’s blood speaks a better word. Though His blood was shed to satisfy justice, the word His blood cries out is mercy! Even as He was being murdered, He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And this blood that cries mercy is sprinkled across the heavenly altar in the heavenly Temple in the heavenly Jerusalem.

So here you have it: two mountains that represent the Lord completely and perfectly. Mt. Sinai represents His holy judgment against sin, and Mt. Zion represents His mercy toward sinners. Now the warning.

Do Not Refuse Him

25 See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire.
– Hebrews 12:25-29 (ESV)

I’ll be brief. In Christ, we become new creations. The old has passed away, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17). Judgment is coming. Christ will return and usher in the fully realized Kingdom of God. And not only will there be a new earth, but a new heaven, hence He’s going to shake both the earth and the heavens. If you remain a part of the old creation, you will not stand. Only the things that cannot be shaken – new creations – will remain. If you refuse He who is speaking, you will not escape His wrath. Who is speaking? Go back to the beginning of the letter.

1 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.
– Hebrews 1:1-2 (ESV)

Heed what He is saying. Pay no attention to those who would pull you away from Him. Perhaps you are deconstructing. Are you questioning what you have been believing? Hear His voice. Don’t listen to me, listen to Him. Is He speaking to you? Does His Word ring clear in your heart as you read this? I want to be super clear about something. Deconstruction – questioning what you’ve been taught – doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Where people go wrong is when deconstruction turns into demolition. The foundation has been laid that cannot be destroyed.

19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
– Ephesians 2:19-22 (ESV)

Don’t lay aside the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together. What I say should always be measured against the Foundation and the Cornerstone. I invite it. But don’t only measure me. Measure your own life against the Foundation and the Cornerstone. He cannot be shaken. His kingdom cannot be shaken. You cannot demolish it. Though you may justify and rationalize your mind into demolishing everything you’ve ever believed, at the end of the day, those justifications and rationalizations are fueled by self-interest and selfish ambition and, according to James, arise from demonic wisdom (James 3:14-15). Whether you believe or not, the foundation and Cornerstone remain.

I know I’m long. So here’s my last word.

The choice of these two mountains remains. You don’t have to be Jewish to choose Mount Sinai. You don’t necessarily become Jewish by choosing Mount Sinai. Sinai represents one simple thing. When you refuse to believe the Gospel, you choose to bear your own sins before a holy God. And you will consequently bear the judgment that those sins deserve. God is just and will not let sin go unpunished, and His Law – Sinai – will crush you.

But if you choose Mount Zion, you have chosen to believe in Jesus, the Son of God, who bore all of God’s judgment for your sins on the cross. He absorbed the full wrath of God on your behalf, so no judgment for your sins remains. All you must do is repent and believe in Him, and you will enter the Father’s rest and join the everlasting, joyful assembly of God’s people. Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.

if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.
– Romans 10:9-10 (ESV)

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Last modified: February 4, 2024
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