Fearing God: Sinai or Zion? (Hebrews 12:18-29)
Topic: One Lord: No One Like You Passage: Hebrews 12:18–12:29
Fearing God: Sinai or Zion?
(One Lord: No One Like You)
October 14th, 2018
I. Who or What Do You Fear?
If you were with us last time, you may remember that we began talking about the incredibly necessary, but incredibly neglected topic of fearing God. Many today hear the phrase, “the fear of God” or “the fear of the LORD” and think something antiquated or outdated is being discussed. But as we heard in our last study, this theme is talked about over and over again in Scripture. It is a central thread that weaves its way through both the Old & New Testaments. It is just as relevant for the disciple of Jesus today, as it is was for the Abraham, Moses, & David.
But we also concluded our last study with the idea that all of us are under the influence of some fear. Remember, one of the things we learned from Jonah chapter 1 is that the Hebrew word we translate as “fear” is bigger than our English word. Maybe our word “overwhelmed” would be a helpful complement. The sailors of Jonah 1 were rightly overwhelmed by the wind, waves, and threat of death. But at the end of that chapter, they were overwhelmed by the reality of God's power in a very different way, a way that led them to worship God.
So with that broader idea of fear in mind, I think it's fair to say that all of us are either influenced by the fear of God, or some other fear (or fears). For example, some make much of others' opinions. This 'making much of' involves a number of factors, including a fear of rejection. But I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that such a fear can rule someone's life.
But we were created to be overwhelmed by everything that makes God God. Thus to live under the fear of anything or anyone else other than God, is to walk a very hollow path; a counterfeit path, one that only leads to disappointment and destruction.
So let's see if we can expand on some of the ideas God revealed to us last time, ideas about what we've called a biblically-informed fear. Keep this in mind as we look at Hebrews 12.
II. The Passage: "With Reverence and Awe" (12:18-29)
This morning, we're going to look at a passage that begins in verse 18 and runs to the end of the chapter. As we work through this section of Scripture, it's important to know that the writer here is speaking to a Jewish Christian community struggling in the face of what we might call 'peer pressure'; unbelieving Jews were pressuring these belivers to deny Jesus and return to the traditional beliefs and practices of first century Judaism.
But throughout this letter, the author has been doing two big things: he has been highlighting the superiority of Jesus and his covenant, AND, in light of that, he's been reminding his readers about the incredibly serious stakes involved when it comes to either receiving or rejecting Christ.
But...before we dive into this passage, I'd like to quickly look at another passage, one from the OT. So keep a finger or some kind of bookmark at Hebrews 12, and turn back to Exodus 20. Look with me at verses 18-20. We read...
Now when all the people [i.e. the Israelites] saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain [i.e. Mount Sinai] 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 may be before you, that you may not sin.” (Exodus 20:18–20)
So the Israelites, who only months earlier were slaves in Egypt, are now gathered at the base of Mount Sinai in order to make a covenant with Yahweh, the God of their forefathers. But notice their response to God's presence on the mountain. They're terrified, aren't they? They think they're going to die if God speaks to them.
But also notice how Moses responds to them. In verse 20 he makes the mysterious state-ment, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” Huh? 'Don't be afraid. God's here so that you might be afraid of him?' What? Hold on to that tension, and look back with me to Hebrews 12. We'll start in verses 18-21. In those verses we read about...
1. Fear in the Shadow of Sinai (vs. 18-21)
[Verse 18...] 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.”
Just as I did with you a couple minutes ago, did you see how the writer takes his Jewish-Christian readers back to Exodus 20? He takes them back to Sinai. But in the opening words of verse 18, he makes it clear that they are NOT in the shadow of Sinai. God has not brought them to a literal mountain. And He has not brought them to a place of “fire”, “darkness”, “gloom”, and “a tempest”.
Why is the author of Hebrews using this image, this language? Because Sinai represents the old covenant. But ultimately, we know that old covenant only led to condemnation, since the people could not be holy as God was holy. The blood of bulls and goats could only go so far in atoning for human sin. Therefore, the writer is reminding his readers that such a covenant offers no lasting safety for sinners like us. In the end, it only leaves us overwhelmed by the justice and the wrath of God. But that is not where his readers find themselves spiritually. If we move on to verses 22-24, we read about...
2. Fear in the Light of Zion (vs. 22-24)
[Verse 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,  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.
In faith, these first readers had come to an immaterial mountain, not a material one; not a physical place. By God's grace, through faith in (v. 24) “Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant”, these Christians were now in the presence of God in a radically new way.
You may know “Mount Zion” was the name of the hill on which Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem. It could refer to that hill or to the city itself. But throughout the OT, it's used as more than just a geographical place name. It is used poetically to refer to God's presence, to the place of his salvation, to a place of victory and spiritual safety.
So in Hebrews 12, the writer points his readers, and God points us, to the fullness behind the geography and the poetry. He points us to the heavenly Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem; to that place of victory and spiritual safety in the presence of God himself.
It is a place of joy and celebration, not “darkness” and “gloom”. It is the place of the people of the “firstborn” over all creation, a people whose names are “enrolled in heaven”. It is a place where the faithful from every generation have found rest in perfection. How? Because it is the place where the “blood” of Jesus, the blood of our great High Priest, has been “sprinkled” for our everlasting atonement, to make us perfect through Christ's perfect work.
If the blood of Abel cried out from the ground, appealing to the justice of God (Genesis 4), how much more has God heard the blood of Christ, his perfect Son? The blood of Jesus speaks not a word of vengeance, but a word of victory...of redemption. And it speaks that word to (v. 23) “God, the judge of all”. The contrast with Mount Sinai could not be clearer.
Now I labeled this section, “fear in the light of Zion”. So where's the fear here? Hold on. I'll get there. For the time being, if we move down to verses 25-27, we read about...
3. Fear in the Shadow of Our Faithlessness (vs. 25-27)
In light of these two mountains, the writer soberly encourages his readers in verse 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.  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.
It's important to remember that the author here is speaking to everyone who identifies with this Jewish Christian community. And as was indicated earlier, some of these individuals were on the fence, leaning toward the old ways of Judaism. Thus, he issues this warning.
Now notice how the warning assumes that the God of Zion is still the God of Sinai. Do you see that? If the justice and wrath of God thundered at Sinai and eventually consumed those who rejected his law, how much more will his justice and wrath thunder from heaven against those who reject his precious Son?
He wants them to understand that the reality of a new covenant does not mean God will go easy on faithlessness, especially in the case of those who have heard the good news about Jesus, and yet, have still rejected him. There is still a judgment to come.
But notice how he points in verse 27 to that which “cannot be shaken”. That points us forward to the final two verses of this chapter, verses 28, 29. In those verses we read about...
4. Fear in the Light of His Kingdom (vs. 28, 29)
[Keeping all this in mind, verse 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,  for our God is a consuming fire.
So it's important to point out that the author doesn't stop with the warning of verse 25. Given the stakes involved, he does maintain a very serious tone in verses 28 and 29. But the focus shifts, doesn't it...from warning to worship. And notice how it's worship fueled by gratitude. Through Jesus, we have received “a kingdom that cannot be shaken”. As we heard before, that kingdom is built on the solid foundation of a new covenant...a new covenant ratified by Jesus' own blood. Are you thankful this morning for the King's victory and for his unshakable kingdom? Thanks be to God!
But what does the writer mean by “acceptable worship”? Well, chapter 13 may be his explanation. Verses 15 and 16 of that chapter seem to point us in this direction. Look at the language the author uses:
Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.  Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. (Hebrews 13:15–16)
Did you see how the author is using OT images here, how he's using the language of sacrifice to describe how we worship God through our praises and expressions of love? But as I mentioned before, how is this (as the section title indicates) fear in the light of His kingdom? We could say thankfulness, or worship, in the light of His kingdom...but fear? Well, look again at that the last phrase of verse 28, and verse 29...let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe,  for our God is a consuming fire. More about that in just a minute.
III. From Feeling Awful to Feelings of Awe
Brothers and sisters, I want you to see how the writer here has moved us from Sinai to Zion, and from warning to worship. I want us to see that because I want to make sure all of us have made that same transition in our hearts. What do I mean?
I mean that Sinai is an important stop. We need to feel awful about our sin. We need to tremble in the face of our guilt and God's judgment. We need to fear God in that way...to be overwhelmed by his justice.
But we shouldn't stay there. God is calling us to Zion. Even Exodus 20:20 contained something of that call: Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.”
They feared for their lives. But Moses wanted to reassure them that God had not come in judgment. “Do not fear”. No, God came down on Mount Sinai in order to move them from horror to holiness...from feeling awful to feelings of awe in His presence...that they would obey him. But remember, the animal blood of the old covenant could only go so far in atoning for human sin; such a covenant offered no lasting safety for sinners like us.
Are you afraid of God this morning, or do you fear Him? There's a difference. Are you stuck at Sinai, or have you come, by God's grace, all the way to Zion? What the people experienced at Sinai is certainly part of what it means to fear God. But it's not the fullness God intended for his people. That fullness is something only Jesus Christ can make possible. Only his blood, only his work as mediator, only his new covenant can give us the safety we need to stand in Zion, to worship God, to belong to an unshakable kingdom. You see without the bad news of Sinai, we cannot grasp just how good the good news of Zion really is.
The good news of Zion is the gospel of grace. And as we see here in verse 28, gospel-informed fear is characterized by “reverence and awe”. If you have confessed and do confess Christ as Savior and Lord, is your life characterized by that same “reverence and awe”? What inspires such things? Well, how could the reality of our heavenly Zion not inspire awe/fear? How could the new covenant not inspire awe/fear? How could this unshakable kingdom not inspire awe/fear? Those things reveal the overwhelming-ness of God's awesome nature.
But the writer concludes this chapter by emphasizing another aspect of God's nature. We should worship God with “reverence and awe, for [v. 29] our God is a consuming fire”. Now, I suspect that God as a “consuming fire” is like fearing God when it comes to Christian practice today; that it's a fairly uncommon image in our prayers and praise. Titles like Redeemer and Father and Sovereign do and should mark our prayers and praise. But according to this verse “consuming fire” should also be included. But how and why?
Well, I think the truth of God as a “consuming fire” is meant to do two things: first, to radically sober those waffling in terms of Jesus, and second, to radically strengthen those who are suffering for Jesus. Those waffling must understand the stakes; that God will indeed act against those who reject his Son. And those suffering must understand God's justice; that He will indeed act on behalf of those suffering unjustly. We cannot and should not be content with an ambivalent attitude toward Jesus. And we cannot and should not be despairing when it comes to suffering for His name's sake.
You see, the identification of God as “a consuming fire” comes right out of two verses from the OT book of Deuteronomy: Deuteronomy 4:24 and 9:3. In the former verse, this fire is connected with God's jealousy and is a warning about idolatry. In the latter verse, this fire is mentioned as an encouragement, that is, that God can consume even the strongest of Israel's enemies. In light of the context, I think both of those verses from Deuteronomy can help us understand the “reverence and awe” that should characterize the “acceptable worship” we offer to God.
To be clear, if you are a genuine follower of Jesus this morning, the “reverence and awe” of Hebrews 12 does not flow from the possibility that God's fire will consume you if you mess up. That would directly contradict everything we've head about being enrolled in heaven, about God's kingdom, about our mediator, about his blood, about his covenant. No, our “reverence and awe” flows from the reality of the unimpeachable justice and the righteous power and the holy wrath of our Creator.
How could we not be in awe of the very justice, power, and wrath that will one day purge the universe of sin's ugliness, and the very justice, power, and wrath that long ago was poured out on Jesus, in order to purge you of that same ugliness? Let us therefore be humbled before this consuming fire. Let us then rejoice in this consuming fire. Let us then worship and give thanks and testify of this consuming fire that is our God and Father.