Tuesday, February 11, 2014
"A Better Mountain" Sermon: Hebrews 12:18-24
“A Better Mountain”
February 9, 2014 Second Reformed Church
Last week, we considered that we are called, in the midst of trial and temptation, to continue to train ourselves for the race of faith, to seek the good of our neighbors, and to strive for the holiness without which no one will see God. In addition, we are to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to hear the Gospel and, having received it, to receive all of the grace given by God through the Word and the Sacraments – turning us all away from heresy, sexual immorality, and unholiness.
We saw that Christ has endured the cross for the joy of glorifying God by saving a people for Himself. And as we grow through striving for holiness and being disciplined for sin, we will see that all that God does is for our good, and we will, indeed, strive for holiness.
The first century Jewish Christians had many painful reasons to turn away from the Gospel and to go back to the Sacrificial System of the Old Testament – they were being persecuted by the Romans and the non-believing Jews – turning back would bring them to some degree of peace with both groups. But the author of Hebrews tells them over and over: don’t turn away from the Gospel! That is the theme of the book of Hebrews in many different presentations: don’t turn away from the Gospel!
This morning, we find yet another reason why they – and we – ought not turn away from the Gospel, no matter what may befall us in the Providence of God: we have come to a better mountain. In this we see:
First, Jesus lived and died to save us from damnation by the Law.
Second, Jesus saved us by the New Covenant cut in His Blood.
First, Jesus lived and died to save us from damnation by the Law.
“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 that 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.’”
We do well to look back at the actual history here:
“On the third new moon after the people of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They set out from Rephidim and came into the wilderness of Sinai, and they encamped before the mountain, while Moses went up to God. The LORD called to him out of the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagle’s wings and brought you to myself. Now, therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.’
“So Moses came and called the elders of the people and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. All the people answered together and said, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do.’ And Moses reported the words of the people to the LORD. And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever’” (Exodus 19:1-9a, ESV).
So, we remember that the Lord led Israel out of Egypt and across the Red Sea. It is now the third month since they escaped. They have been led by a pillar of cloud during the day, and a pillar of fire by night, and when the pillar stopped, they stopped. They reached Mount Sinai – which is in the central southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula – and the pillar stopped, so Israel stopped. And God told Moses to come up on the mountain. Moses went up and God told him to remind the people of how God led them out of Egypt and God’s plans to make them a nation for Himself. So, Moses told them people and they swore that they would obey God in everything that He commanded. God responded by telling Moses that God was now going to speak so everyone – all two million Israelites – would hear Him as He spoke with Moses.
“When Moses told the words of the people to the LORD, the LORD said to Moses, ‘Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day. For on the third day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. And you shall set limits for the people all around saying, “Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch even the edge of it. Whoever touches the mountain will be put to death. No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live. When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain.” So Moses went down from the mountain to the people and consecrated the people; and they washed their garments. And he said to the people, ‘Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman’” (Exodus 19:9b-15, ESV).
God tells Moses that He is going to give His Word to Moses and the people on the third day. In the meantime, they were to make themselves ceremonially pure – washing themselves and their clothes and abstaining from sexual relations. And when God came to the mountain, no one was to go near it or touch it – not man or beast – except for Moses, or else they would be put to death.
“On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very long trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand 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 in the thunder. The LORD came down on Mount Sinai to the top of the mountain. And the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.
“And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to the LORD to look and many of them perish. Also let the priests who come near to the LORD consecrate themselves, lest the LORD break out against them.’ And Moses said to the LORD, ‘The people cannot come up on Mount Sinai, for you yourself warned us, saying, “Set limits around the mountain and consecrate it.”’ And the LORD said to him, ‘Go down, and come up bringing Aaron with you. But do not let the priests and the people break through to come to the LORD, lest he break out against them.’ So Moses went down to the people and told them” (Exodus 19:16-25, ESV).
The third day came, and there was thunder and lightning – over and over – a thick cloud covered the mountain – and a trumpet blast – played by no human – was sounding non-stop – and it was getting louder and louder. The people began to tremble at all that was happening, and they saw that smoke was coming off of the mountain, because God had come in fire and had set the mountain ablaze. And the Voice of the Lord cried out over the trumpet, instructing Moses to come up on the mountain. And God told Moses to go back down the mountain and warn the people again – if any one – human or animal should come too close or touch the mountain or try to climb up it – God would kill them dead. But, God wanted Moses to come back up the mountain and to bring his brother Aaron with him. All these things Moses did.
After Moses had completed these things, Moses and Aaron went back up the mountain and God spoke with a voice that could be heard by all two million Israelites:
“And God spoke all these words, saying,
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
“You shall have no other gods before me.
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth below, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on their children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
“You shall not murder.
“You shall not commit adultery.
“You shall not steal.
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.’
“Now when 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.’ Moses said to the people, ‘Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him might be before you, that you may not sin.’ The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was” (Exodus 20:1-21, ESV).
While there was thunder and lightening and smoke and fire and an increasing trumpet blast and God’s threats of death if they came near or touched the mountain, much less tried to ascend it, God boomed the Ten Commandments to the people from the top of Mount Sinai – the first exposure to the Ten Commandments was God speaking them to the people – writing them down came later – and the people were terrified by what was happening around them in the natural realm and, even more so, as they heard the Voice of God calling them to holiness.
They understood that they were sinners and unclean – that’s why they had the ceremonial laws of purification and washed themselves and their clothes. They knew that the wages of sin is death – God cannot wink at sin – sin must be punished, and since all sin is ultimately against God, it must receive the greatest possible punishment, because God is the greatest possible Being. To sin against God and receive His Judgment would be eternal death – now and forever paying the debt for sin. They understood that if animals who touched the mountain would be put to death – animals who cannot sin, but are fallen because of the sin of our first parents – how much more will a human be punished, if he breaks the Law of God.
Israel was called that day – through the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Law that was given – to living a holy life before God and under God’s Law. They were clothed in terror, because anyone in their right mind knows that because all mere humans are born sinners, we do and will break God’s Law.
Here we find three purposes of the Law of God – to convict us of the Holiness of God, to convict us of our sin, and to show us that we cannot be saved from the Wrath of God for our sin by keeping the Law. The Law was never intended to be a means of salvation – the Law was given to us that we would understand Who God is, our sin, and that we cannot make ourselves right with God.
And so, coming to an understanding of the Holiness of God brings the convinced sinner to terror, fear, and dread – until and unless we come to know that Jesus lived and died to save us from damnation by the Law.
Jesus is the only human being – other than Adam and Eve – Who was not born with Original Sin. Jesus was not born a sinner, inclined towards sin, and unable to follow God’s Law. And since Jesus is also God, He was able to keep the whole Law of God, as a man – for we who believe and to the Glory of God. And then, as our Perfect Substitute, He freely took upon Himself the full Wrath of God for our sins. And so, He has credited us with His Righteousness and taken our sins and their debt to God from us and paid them. And we are now seen as righteous – and we are right with God, being made by God into the Image of His Son – holy – to be glorified on that final day when Jesus returns with the fulness of the Kingdom.
In Jesus, we have not been called to be clothed in terror, so why would we put away the Gospel and deny that the Savior has come? We would we sit down at the foot of Mount Sinai and look for salvation through the Law which cannot come?
We are still to keep the moral law – like the Ten Commandments – and God indwells us that we are now able to keep the moral law. But the Law was never a means of salvation. Although we are called to be holy and to strive towards holiness, we can only become holy through the Word of Jesus Christ accomplished and applied to us. As far as salvation is concern, Mount Sinai is a lesser mountain.
There is a better mountain, for Jesus saved us by the New Covenant cut in His Blood:
“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, and to the assembly of the first-born 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.”
Why shouldn’t we turn our backs on the Gospel? Because through Jesus’ life and death He has brought us by His Blood to eternal salvation that we would come to Mount Zion – the city of God – the heavenly Jerusalem – all three mean the same thing: through Jesus, we are brought into His Kingdom – now and forever – that we would live with Him in Glory.
We are and will be in the place where the angels of God are together – thousands upon thousands of them – rejoicing and giving thanks and celebrating the salvation of the people of God. We are and will ever be in the presence of our God and Savior – through His Blood.
John describes the scene: “Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name written on their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven like the roar of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder. The voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, and they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. It is these who did not defile themselves with women, for they are virgins. It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb, and in their mouth no lie was found because they were blameless” (Revelation 14:1-5, ESV).
This is the vision that was given to Isaiah: “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not life up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:2-4, ESV).
The Kingdom into which Christ has brought us and is bringing us is the Kingdom of joy and rejoicing. We with the angels and all the other heavenly creatures will rejoice and praise God – glorifying Him for His Work of salvation – for Who He is and all He did to glorify Himself.
John identified the elect as the firstfruits. The author of Hebrews calls the elect the first born. This is in opposition to Esau – who we have been told not to be like. Esau despised God and His blessings and gave away his status as firstborn for a bowl of stew. Through Jesus, we who believe the Gospel are all the firstborns of God – we are all inheritors of the Kingdom and rulers of the Creation.
We who believe the Gospel have been brought before God, through Jesus, and we have been declared righteous and we are being made perfect – we shall be perfect – holy – in the presence of God that we might see our God and live. We will not die if we come near to Him, but He tells us to come and rejoice and worship Him Who is Worthy. And we shall glorify Him for Who He is and all He has done to make us right with God.
Through the reception of the Gospel, we will be brought into Christ’s Kingdom of peace, and we shall be clothed in the love of God, our Father.
And this will occur – and it can only occur – because Jesus is the “mediator of a new covenant, and to sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”
We remember that Abel was murdered by his brother, Cain. And God came to Cain and asked where Abel was, and Cain said he was not his brother’s keeper. “And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground’” (Genesis 4:10, ESV). The blood of Abel cried from the ground, “Justice!” And Cain was cut off from the Kingdom.
If we look to keeping God’s Law for salvation, we shall be cut off from the Kingdom – because the Law says that anyone who breaks a single Law must suffer eternal death at the Hands of God. If you think you can be good enough, you can’t. God requires holiness – absolutely perfect obedience in all things. And the best that a person can be is a born sinner, because we inherit our sin nature from our first parents. We are born under the Wrath of God, and there is no way for us to do enough, to be good enough, to merit salvation.
That’s not to say that justice is evil. No, justice is good. However, if you are a sinner like me, who knows that I don’t want justice from God – I don’t want Him to give me what I deserve for my life and sins, you will want a better mountain than Sinai – you will want Zion.
And you will want better blood than Abel’s – you will want Jesus’ Blood. The author of Hebrews is at pains to show that the blood of animals can only provide temporary, incomplete forgiveness under the Law of God. And we see here that even the blood of a good man – like Abel – is not enough. Abel is listed as one of the persons of faith that we should emulate, but he was still a sinner who had no hope of being right with God, except through the Savior God would send – through the Gospel – through the Blood of Jesus.
The author of Hebrews already stated, “For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, purify our consciences from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:13-14, ESV).
Jesus went to the cross for the joy of glorifying God through saving a people for Himself. God the Son freely came to earth in the person of Jesus to live a perfect life under God’s Law and to be put to death on the cross by sinners, that we who believe would be made righteous by His Life and forgiven through His Death – in taking on God’s Wrath for our sins. And He proved that He work was finished – that His Blood spoke a better word than Abel’s, because, after He declared that “it is finished,” He physically rose from the dead and ascended back to His Throne – where He is now readying to bring His Kingdom in all its fullness to earth when the last member of the elect confesses faith and belief in Jesus. Therein, we have the Gospel.
Paul explains that there are two groups of people in the world – those who will remain in slavery to sin, and those who will be freed to inherit the Promise with Jesus. He was writing to the Galatians who had false teachers in the church arguing that Christians must keep the ceremonial and judicial laws, not just the moral laws. Paul writes:
“Tell me, you who desire to be under the law; do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these two women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written, ‘Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than those of the one who has a husband.’ Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. But what does the Scripture say? ‘Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.’ So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman” (Galatians 4:21-31, ESV).
The author of Hebrews told the first century Christians – and he tells us – that we ought not to turn away from the Gospel, but embrace it wholeheartedly, enduring whatever comes to pass – being ready for it, training to endure, and trusting our loving Father.
Anyone who turns back from faith in the Gospel has turned back to Mount Sinai – to being judged under the Moral Law of God for salvation. The end of that is just damnation for our sin.
But, Jesus lived and died to save us from damnation by the Law, and Jesus saved us by the New Covenant cut in His Blood. If we remain with the Gospel – having received it by faith, believed it in our hearts, and passionately confessed it as true – then we have come and are coming to Mount Zion – to living in the Kingdom with our God and Savior forever in peace and joy, glorifying and worshiping God for everlasting ages.
Brothers and sisters, we have not come to the mountain of God to be a people covered in terror, but we have come, through the Blood of Jesus – through His Work on our behalf and to the Glory of God, to life, and life everlasting. Hold fast to the Gospel – it is the way to the better mountain.
Let us pray:
Almighty God, we live in an age when we don’t believe You are truly holy. We think we are good enough or, if You are fair, You ought to admit people into You Kingdom on a curve, or, even, that, if Your are truly Love, You must receive everyone. Lord, dispel us of these ideas which so diminish Your Holiness. Help us to see You for Who You are – make us see more clearly, and make us strong through the workings of the Holy Spirit that we would always hold fast to the Gospel, being willing to endure whatever Your Providence brings, for the salvation that we only receive in You. For it is in Jesus’ Name we pray, Amen.