The Fire of God, Part 1

For 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. For they could not endure the order that was given, 'If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, 'I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 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, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. 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, how much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. 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.” 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. 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, for our God is a consuming fire. Hebrews 12:18-29

 

    Once upon a time a very rich man was growing close to the day of his death. The Lord spoke to him one day and told him to get his affairs in order, for soon he would depart the earth to be among the heavenly throng. Being very rich, the man asked God if he could store all of his gold in a suitcase and bring it to heaven, which the Lord allowed the man to do. After the man died, Peter met him at the Pearly Gates and said, 'You can't bring that suitcase into heaven, for you won't need anything here.” The rich man replied, 'But the Lord said I could,” and after a brief inquiry, Peter found this to be true. Peter asked, 'May I see what's in the suitcase?” After examining the contents for a little while, Peter looked at the man and asked with a puzzled look on his face, 'Why would you want to bring pavement into heaven?”

    As we examine our current passage, we will see that there are two comparisons that are taking place, but they are both of the same family. The first comparison is between an old, shakable, terrifying, temporary law (vv. 18-21), and a new, eternal, living, joyous, unshakable kingdom (vv. 22-24) where we don't approach God in fear of punishment, but with thanksgiving, worship, reverence and awe (vv. 28-29). The second comparison is between the temporary kingdoms and the priorities we establish on earth (vv. 25-26), and the eternal and unshakable kingdom that awaits us with God in heaven (vv. 27-28). The first comparison is between two systems of worship, one superseded by the other, and the other comparison is between two kingdoms, one temporary and one eternal, and again, one superseded by the other. It is the difference between the value of gold on earth and the value of gold in heaven.

    At this point in his letter, the author is closing out his warnings about refusing to heed God's word.

He has spent most of his letter convincing his readers that the new way of Jesus the Messiah is better than the old way of priests and sacrifices. He now gives two more illustrations, one comparing Mt. Sinai with Mt. Zion, the other contrasting the temporary, shakable kingdom of those things that are created with the eternal, unshakable kingdom of those things which are not. We read that Mt. Sinai could be and has been touched (v. 18) by people from time immemorial, (when God was not present upon it in His glory and holiness) but Mt. Zion cannot be touched (v. 22). When God spoke to the people from Mt. Sinai the people trembled (v. 19), but now He speaks to us words of life and implores us not to ignore them (v. 25). When God appeared to the people on Mt. Sinai, the people saw an entire mountain that was on fire (v. 18). But we see now that it is God himself who is a consuming fire (v. 28). On Mt. Sinai both Moses (v. 21) and the people (v. 22) trembled, but when the day comes that we stand before God, there will accompany us a joyful angelic assembly (v. 22). When God spoke to Moses the earth trembled (v. 26), but at the end of time God will also shake the heavens (v. 26).

    Verse 18 opens with a picture of God who once struck terror into the hearts of His people. Here we see a God that cannot be touched or approached, who exists in a mountain of fire and is surrounded by darkness, gloom and storm. Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. 'Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him” (Exodus 19:18-19). Then, '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 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). 

    With God's presence upon the mountain, it became so charged with His holiness that if a man or a beast accidentally touched or trespassed upon the mountain, it then contracted so much holiness that it became dangerous to touch, and God instructed the people to kill it from a distance, using either stones or arrows (Exodus 19:13). The assembled people were literally in view of the tremendous holiness and power of God, and they said to Moses, 'You speak to us and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die” (Exodus 20:19; Hebrews 12:19), and God acquiesced to their desires. In her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard suggests that because God granted their request, people all over the world have been searching for the voice of God ever since.

    In spite of the unapproachable qualities of our Creator, God still desires our praise and our worship, and He has provided a way for us to come into His presence without being stoned or shot with an arrow, and that is through the blood of Jesus.

The voice of God may still be heard, the love of God may still be manifested, and the compassion of God may still be experienced. In fact, they will one day be all that will be experienced.  

    Our author is taking us to the place where there is God and there is none other. And he does so by quoting Haggai 2:6, reminding us that all that we see and know in this material world will one day disappear. 'Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth.” Eugene Peterson says, 'The phrase 'one last shaking' means a thorough housecleaning, getting rid of all the historical and religious junk so that the unshakable essentials stand clear and uncluttered” (The Message).

    God will remove all that was created, for anything created can be 'shaken.' Only the eternal cannot be 'shaken.” The question we must ask ourselves is, 'Are we putting our hopes and dreams on 'shakable' items that God will one day destroy with fire?” There are certain things that will never be amended, altered, changed, or destroyed: The character of God, the nature and responsibility of man, the fact of human guilt, the doctrine of acceptance by sacrifice, and the necessity of repentance, to name a few. Philosophies will change, but Jesus remains the same. Denominations come and go, but the Church endures. Countries fall, but God's kingdom reigns forever. Creeds, confessions, and doctrines are modified over time, but the Word of God endures forever. The heavens and the earth will one day pass away, but the kingdom of God inhabited by His children will endure for eternity.

    So now as Christians we have not come to a physical mountain where God is unapproachable, but to 'Mt. Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (v. 22).

In the Old Testament, Mt. Zion was the stronghold of the Jebusites, which David captured and made his royal home during the seventh year of his reign (2 Samuel 5:6-9). He then made it the religious center of the people's worship. 2 Samuel 6:2 says that David 'arose and went with all the people who were with him from Baale-judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the LORD of hosts who sits enthroned on the cherubim.” So Mt. Zion became the earthly meeting place of God and man, 'the city that the LORD had chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, to put his name there” (1 Kings 14:21). Psalm 78:68-69 tells us that God 'chose the tribe of Judah, Mount Zion, which he loves. He built his sanctuary like the high heavens, like the earth, which he has founded forever.” After Solomon became king, he built the temple on the hill north of Zion, and there he put the ark of the covenant, where Zion became synonymous with Jerusalem as recorded in Psalm 122:3-4, 'Jerusalem—built as a city that is bound firmly together, to which the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the LORD.” We learn from this that as the earthly Zion was the meeting place for the 12 tribes of Israel, now the heavenly Zion is the meeting place for the tribes of people all over the world who are the new Israel, the Church. This is what John saw in His vision as recorded in his revelation. 'Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father's name written on their foreheads” (Revelation 14:1). Of course, the author of Hebrews has already spoken of this city 'whose designer and builder is God” (11:10), and will remind us in 13:14. 'For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.”

    In the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai, three things become evident. First, God is encompassed by sheer majesty. We see no love, for that is to be revealed later, but only might and strength. Next, an overwhelming sense of unapproachable holiness enveloped the people. The tribes were not invited to approach His Most Holy Place (10:19) or to draw near to Him (10:22), but to stay away lest they be killed. Third, they were overwhelmed with the complete terror of the situation. They experienced nothing but the awe-stricken terror of a people called to worship an unapproachable and unknowable God.

    But as we approach Mt. Zion in verse 22, there is a new list of glories that await the believer who has now been invited into the Lord's presence. First, we are not told to stand far away and await God's word through one servant, but come to worship among 'innumerable angels in festal gathering.” There is no fear, shame, or awe-stricken terror for those who approach the heavenly Jerusalem through the blood of Christ. What the author is showing is a universal assembly of believers who have gathered in a festival atmosphere to give glory and honor to God, the creator of the universe. And it is such a wonderful occasion that even the angels in heaven break out into joyous celebration.

    We also see waiting for us the saints who have gone before us to be with the Lord.

The author is not referring us to that one fine day when we will all meet in the air and worship God for eternity while perched on a cloud and strumming a harp. The 'assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (v. 23), is a reference to the whole communion of saints, both past and present, for all the children of God are the 'firstborn.” Being a firstborn means that the inheritance and honor of the Father is now bestowed upon us.

    Furthermore, the firstborn have their names written in heaven. Jesus told the disciples, 'Rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20), and in Revelation repeated reference is made to 'those who are written in the Lamb's book of life” (see Revelation 3:5; 20:1; 21:27; also, Philippians 4:3). In ancients days it was the habit of many kings to keep a register of their faithful citizens. So God has kept a list of all His faithful citizens, whom He calls sons, and there awaits for them the glory and honor due them as co-heirs with Christ.