March 10, 2019
Life is full of choices. This morning, you decided whether to get up early or sleep in – after losing an hour of sleep. Whether to eat breakfast or not. What to eat for breakfast. Caffeinated or decaf. Whether to go to church or not. The 8:15, 9:45 or 11:15 service. Whether to go out for lunch – and if so, where. I don’t know about you, but that’s always the biggest challenge for my family. We go out on Sundays, but where to go? No one wants to make that decision. Then when we get there, what to choose from the menu. When we get home – to nap or not to nap. Greenway to walk or run? Or ride on the Parkway? Too many choices.
When I was in the business world many years ago, my job required regular meetings with customers – lunch meetings, for example – almost every day. Sometimes I’d schedule two lunches in one day – one at 11:30, the other at 1:00. Eating out every day – boring. I knew what was on every menu. I played this little game – I’d wait for my guest to order, and say, that sounds good – I’ll have what he’s having. At least it would be a surprise that way. Of course, I always had a backup in case he ordered chicken livers or salad.
Life is filled with choices every day. Some are more significant than others. Some actually carry eternal consequences. I’m reminded of when the children of Israel finally made it to the land of promise. You see, they had spent 400 years in Egypt, were delivered by Moses, and made their way to the land. Moses sent in 12 spies. When they returned, two said, let’s go, ten said, no way. To whom did they listen? They had a choice to make – and you know they listened to the ten. The majority is not always right. So, they had to wander in the wilderness for 40 years.
But finally, it’s time. Joshua leads them in conquest of the land. You can read about it in the first 12 chapters of the book of Joshua. The next 12 chapters largely talk about the division of the land. But you get to chapter 24 – the last chapter, and Joshua is about to die. So he gives his moving farewell speech. Part of that speech is on plaques in Christian homes all around the world – maybe even your home. “Choose for yourselves today whom you will serve…as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”
Make a choice – will you serve the Lord or not? The context of that verse actually makes it even better. The Israelites had largely conquered the land and divided the land. Sure, there was more to do. But there also remained this little challenge of idolatry. Unbelievable. God had shown Himself faithful to them, and they were still clinging to useless blocks of wood and hunks of metal. So, Joshua’s speech actually went like this. He started with what God said to them:
2 Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘From ancient times your fathers lived beyond the River, namely, Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods.
3 ‘Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River, and led him through all the land of Canaan, and multiplied his descendants and gave him Isaac.
4 ‘To Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau, and to Esau I gave Mount Seir to possess it; but Jacob and his sons went down to Egypt.
5 ‘Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt by what I did in its midst; and afterward I brought you out.
6 ‘I brought your fathers out of Egypt, and you came to the sea; and Egypt pursued your fathers with chariots and horsemen to the Red Sea.
7 ‘But when they cried out to the LORD, He put darkness between you and the Egyptians, and brought the sea upon them and covered them; and your own eyes saw what I did in Egypt. And you lived in the wilderness for a long time….
11 ‘You crossed the Jordan and came to Jericho; and the citizens of Jericho fought against you, and the Amorite and the Perizzite and the Canaanite and the Hittite and the Girgashite, the Hivite and the Jebusite. Thus I gave them into your hand.
12 ‘Then I sent the hornet before you and it drove out the two kings of the Amorites from before you, but not by your sword or your bow.
13 ‘I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and cities which you had not built, and you have lived in them; you are eating of vineyards and olive groves which you did not plant.’
And that ends God’s part of the speech. But now Joshua speaks:
14 “Now, therefore, fear the LORD and serve Him in sincerity and truth; and put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.
15 “If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”
Can you believe it? We leave out the middle part of that verse – but it’s important for context. After all the Lord had done for them, they were still carrying around the gods of their forefathers, from beyond the Euphrates, the gods of the Egyptians and the Amorites. Make a choice. Choose today whom you will serve. That always seemed to be problem for then. It’s why we have the awful book Judges. It’s why they eventually end up in captivity some years later.
And yet, all along, God promised to redeem them. There would come a seed of the woman who would crush the serpent’s head. There would come a descendent of Abraham, through whom all the nations of the world would be blessed. There would come a descendent of David who would sit on David’s throne forever. He would be the Anointed One – the Messiah. And He came, but they largely missed Him.
But good news, some believed. And we’ve found, in our study of Hebrews, it was costing them. The book was written to Jewish believers – those who had believed in Jesus, but were now facing severe persecution. And as a consequence, they were considering quitting and returning to Judaism. Leaving Jesus and returning to the old covenant. Choose you this day, whom you will serve.
So, the author writes to both encourage and warn them. And as we arrive at our text in Hebrews 12, his encouragement is to choose Jesus and the New Covenant He brought – not return to the Old Covenant. Because as he’s been arguing through the book – there remains no sacrifice for sins there. Jesus has come – and He and He alone is the way to be reconciled to God – He alone is the way to forgiveness and eternal life. You cannot return – there’s nothing there. Make a choice. And now he highlights the significant differences between the Old and New Covenants. There’s a sense in which he summarizes many things he’s already said – but it’s so important, he says it again.
Now, make no mistake about it – God brought the Old Covenant. But with the coming of the Christ, per OT promises, the Old Covenant has been made obsolete. Jesus has fulfilled all the types to which the Old Covenant pointed – there remains no life, no hope there. So the author contrasts the two covenants – and in doing so, we find some of the most encouraging words in the letter. Now of course, our problem is not the attraction to return to Judaism. We were never there. Our problem, however, is much the same. Because of the challenges of being a follower of Jesus – the temptation is to quit. To leave. Is this really worth it? If that’s true for you, listen to this great text today. Hebrews 12:18-24.
Do you see the contrast? He contrasts the Old Covenant – specifically how it was given at Mt. Sinai – and the New Covenant found at Mt. Zion. He’s encouraging them by reminding them what the Old Covenant brought – and what the New Covenant brought. Now again, our challenge is not the call of Mt. Sinai – but what mountains of the world call you? Is it the call of another religion? Of the wealth and pleasures of our culture? Of success and the symbols of success? What is it that is competing for your affection and devotion? Let’s look at what you have in Jesus. The outline is quite simple – it looks like this:
- The Old Covenant of Mt. Sinai (18-21)
- The New Covenant of Mt. Zion (22-24)
Notice, the author says you have not come to a mountain that can be touched. The Israelites did – he’s talking about when they came to Mt. Sinai after their escape from Egypt. They came, and God gave them the Law. It was an ominous event. We read about it in Exodus and Deuteronomy. In Exodus 20, God had just finished giving Moses the Ten Commandments, and we read:
18 All the people perceived the thunder and the lightning flashes and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood at a distance.
19 Then they said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, or we will die.”
22 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘You yourselves have seen that I have spoken to you from heaven.
23 ‘You shall not make other gods besides Me; gods of silver or gods of gold, you shall not make for yourselves.’”
That seems to be a recurring theme – a repeated command – don’t follow false gods…. The people were there, they saw the things the author of Hebrews talks about. Forty years later, when Moses is preparing the Israelites to finally enter the land, he recalls this event in Deuteronomy 4:
11 “You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, and the mountain burned with fire to the very heart of the heavens: darkness, cloud and thick gloom.
12 “Then the LORD spoke to you from the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but you saw no form – only a voice.
13 “So He declared to you His covenant which He commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments; and He wrote them on two tablets of stone.
14 “The LORD commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments, that you might perform them in the land where you are going over to possess it.
15 “So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire,
16 so that you do not act corruptly and make a graven image for yourselves in the form of any figure…
There it is again. This keeps popping up – everywhere. The point, there is only one true and living God. And He has revealed Himself to us. First, through the Old Covenant – but now ultimately, in these last days, He has spoken to us through His Son. And He will not tolerate idolatry. Now, in these verses, there are seven things the author says accompanied the giving of the Law at Sinai – we’ll review them quickly:
- First, you’ve come to a mountain that can be touched. The idea is, it was physical.
- Second, there was blazing fire – both Exodus and Deuteronomy talk about fire on the mountain.
- Third, there is darkness. I want you to note the fear and trembling this event brought. The people were scared to death. They told Moses – you talk to God, and tell us what He says. We cannot approach Him. This whole awesome event, and as we’ve seen even the Tabernacle setup, spoke of God’s holiness, His otherness, that He was unapproachable.
- Fourth, there was gloom, a word which intensifies the foreboding experience. It did not bring hope and joy – there is a sense in which it brought dread and gloom.
- Fifth, there was a whirlwind – this speaks of a mighty, howling wind stirring up the dirt. Again, a terrifying event.
- Sixth, there is the blast of a trumpet. Now this likely refers to a shofar or a ram’s horn. But this is a loud peel like thunder. So loud a couple million people hear it.
- And seventh, there was the sound of words – we’re not sure if they understood the words – but they were clearly words. And remember, they came out of the gloom and darkness, such that they begged Moses that God not speak directly to them – lest we die.
At this awesome theophany and the giving of the Law, there was great fear. They felt it, they saw it, they heard it. They could not bear the command – don’t break through and touch the holy mountain. If you do, you will be killed. And if an animal happens to wander off, even the beast is to be stoned. Again, the whole event spoke of no access. You cannot approach God.
So terrible was the sight even Moses said, “I am full of fear and trembling.” Now this is a bit challenging – we don’t read of Moses being afraid here. But the author seems to be thinking of another event found in Exodus 32. Moses had gone up to the mountain to receive the Law. God gave him the Ten Commandments, written by His very finger on two tablets of stone. But while still on the mountain, God told him the people were sinning greatly – they had created a golden image – an idol of a false god – and God was about to destroy them. When Moses tells that story in Deuteronomy 9, forty years later as he’s preparing the people to enter the land, he says:
18 “I fell down before the LORD, as at the first, forty days and nights; I neither ate bread nor drank water, because of all your sin which you had committed in doing what was evil in the sight of the LORD to provoke Him to anger.
19 “For I was afraid of the anger and hot displeasure with which the LORD was wrathful against you in order to destroy you…”
Here’s the point. When they turned from the true God to follow a false God, one they fashioned, Moses was afraid. You see, he too remembered the terror at the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai – the first three commandments of which say you will not have other gods before Me. No taking My name in vain. No graven images. Moses was afraid because they had already broken the Law. He was fearful of the hot anger and wrath of God.
But don’t miss it: our author says to his readers, you have not come to this mountain – Mt. Sinai. You have come to a different mountain – our second point, verses 22-24. You have come to Mt. Zion. Mt. Zion was the city of the Jebusites which David took in the seventh year of his reign – it became the city of David. There, Jerusalem was built on Mt. Moriah, which became the Temple Mount and Mt. Zion. Together, they became known as Mt. Zion, the dwelling place of God.
But here, the author is not talking about a physical city. No, he’s talking about the city of the living God – the heavenly Jerusalem. Just as he spoke of seven things in the giving of the Old Covenant, he speaks of seven things here found in the New Covenant:
- You have come to Mt. Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. Right away, we understand he is not talking about an earthly city. And we are reminded we are looking forward to a city with foundations, meaning unshakeable, whose architect and builder is God. It is the city of the living God – which means He lives there. It is a heavenly city – what the Apostle Paul calls the Jerusalem that is above. And by the way – it will not always be above. You see, in Revelation 21, we read these words:
1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea.
2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband.
3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them…”
Do you see, that’s where we are headed. And notice, we will dwell with God. He will no longer be separate and aloof – transcendent. Not that He’s changed. But having redeemed us, purified us through the work of His Son, we are now fit to live in His presence – for Him to be our God, we to be His people. No more fire, darkness, gloom, terror. Do you see the contrast?
- Second, we have come to myriads of angels. Myriads speaks of thousands upon thousands – some translate it ten thousand. Now, Deuteronomy 33:2 says that countless angels attended God at the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai. And remember the scene there. But here, we gather with countless angels. The point is, in the presence of God in the New Jerusalem, there are lots of angels. In Daniel’s vision of the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7, he speaks of thousands upon thousands of angels serving Him. We are told these angels are in joyful or festal gathering or assembly. It speaks of a festive occasion or celebration, here, to honor God. There is great joy in the presence of God and His angels. In contrast to Mt. Sinai.
- Third, we have come to the church of the firstborn. We are part of the church which belongs to God. Now, the word firstborn is used to speak of Jesus – the firstborn or first in rank. But the word here is in the plural, and likely refers to the truth that we belong to the assembly, the church of all those who are coheirs with Christ and have inherited the firstborn blessing as sons and daughters of God. We see further their names, an our names, are enrolled in heaven. Our names are written in the Lambs book of life – written from the foundation of the world.
- Fourth, we have come to God Himself – the judge of all. Remember, under the Old Covenant, access to God was restricted. But because of the New Covenant, we have access to God. We’ve been told through this book we can draw near to God – approach the throne of grace – something unknown in the Old Covenant. Yes, He is the judge of all – but as we have received Jesus, we need not fear His judgment – for our judgment was laid on Christ.
- Fifth, we have come to the spirits of the righteous made perfect. Lots of discussion about that, but most agree this referring to all those – under the Old Covenant and the New Covenant who have been made perfect because of the work of Christ. Those who are now in heaven, spiritual people awaiting the future resurrection of their bodies. We remember from the last verse of chapter 11, that those in the Hall of Faith were not made perfect apart from us – from those who believe in Christ and His work on the cross. You see, the author has argued, the Old Covenant made no one perfect. It took the work of Christ.
- Which brings us sixth, incredibly, we have come to Jesus, the mediator of the New Covenant. He’s been saying this over and over. In chapters 7 & 8, Jesus mediated a better covenant than the old. In quoting Jeremiah 31 in Hebrews 8, it’s called a New Covenant. He calls it a new covenant again in chapter 9. Here’s the point. The New Covenant is better because it is the fulfillment of all the Old Covenant promised and to which it pointed. It gave what the Old Covenant could never give – full forgiveness of sin and perfection.
- How? Because seventh, we have come to sprinkled blood. Blood infinitely greater than the blood of bulls and goats that could never take away sin for good. We have come to the very blood of Christ. Which finally we see is better than the blood of Abel. What does that mean? Well, besides taking us back to the beginning of chapter 11 and the first one named – Abel’s blood cried out for divine justice. Jesus’ blood met the demands of divine justice, and therefore provided forgiveness forever. It’s better.
So, while our author does not ask his readers to make a choice like Joshua, clearly this is his concern. Joshua said, will you choose the false gods of Egypt and the nations around you? Or will you choose to serve the Lord?
Our author, writing to Jewish believers, says in essence – make a choice. Will you choose the paralyzing terrors of Sinai or the extraordinary joys of Zion? Will you choose the Old Covenant where you had no access to God? He’s been saying it over and over: the Old Covenant and its types never made its followers perfect – that awaited the fulfillment, the coming of Christ. The blood of the animals of the Old Covenant could never take away sin forever. They simply pointed to the blood of Jesus, the lamb of God, who would take away the sin of the world.
So make a choice. Who will you follow? The empty promises of the world, its false religions? Even the old religion of Judaism, which denies Jesus is the Christ. Will you return to that terror, or other religions of hopelessness? Or will you follow Christ, and inherit the joys of heaven to come?