President Obama, at the request of the State of Alaska, recently renamed Mount McKinley to the original Athabaskan name of Denali which means “great one”. Denali, standing at over 20,000 feet, is the highest peak on the North American continent and is in some respects more massive than Mount Everest. Betty and I recently had the privilege of standing on the shoulder of this giant. Using a small plane equipped with skis a tour company flew us and a few others around the summit. Part of our tour was a glacier landing on Denali itself at around 12,000 feet. Our landing site also happened to be base camp for those attempting to climb the summit. Basecamp is not a permanent site, more like a huddle of small tents. The summer window for climbing Denali is short. While there, we learned that the folks currently at base camp had been trying for six weeks to reach the summit, but the weather had made it impossible.
I can’t imagine the heartbreak of training for something this big. Putting your life on hold for close to two months. Enduring the rigors of tent living in a hostile alpine environment. And then, not being able to fulfill the desire of your heart.
In contrast, consider another peak which Betty and I have stood on. The 14,400-foot tall summit of Pike’s Peak is just outside of Colorado Springs. It is one of ten peaks in Colorado which stand at over 14,000 feet. We didn’t just make it to the shoulder of the mountain, we made it all the way to the top. The occasion was one of our family vacations with our kids. We even had a small church service up there in the thin air of the mountain. When Pike’s Peak was first discovered it was predicted that no one would ever be able to scale the mountainside or stand on its summit. Today, it is one of the most accessible peaks in the world; you can hike to the top, you can take a cog-driven train up, or you can, like we did, drive up. By the way, the most challenging part of the drive is not going up, but managing your brakes while coming back down.
In a similar way, our text for today contrasts two mountains. One frightening and inaccessible while the other has the hallmarks of gathering, hospitality, and joy. In Hebrews chapter twelve we read:
“You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”
But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Hebrews 12:18–24, NIV)
Two mountains, three words, one grace will be the milestones of our journey. Two mountains held in contrast. Three words, each speaking righteous truth, but one is the better word. One grace which grants access in ways nothing else can.
While not named it is fairly evident that the first of our two mountains is Mt. Sinai at the moment in time when God delivered the law to the Israelites. After their release from Egypt, after the miracle of the Red Sea, God and Moses brought them to Mt. Sinai. The whole story is revealed in Exodus 19 and following. Sinai is a picture of God’s awesome power and His holiness. The mountain shook, trumpets blew, and God spoke with the sound of thunder. During those days, the law was given along with the plans for God’s Tabernacle, for the priesthood, and for worship. Boundaries were established, no one, not even animals, was permitted up the mountainside except for Moses. The penalty for disobedience, for violating God’s No Trespassing Sign, was death. All the senses of touch, sight, hearing, and smell were in play as the mountain shook, trumpets blared, thunder roared, and smoke covered the mountain. This was a real experience, a real moment in time at a physical place. Yet, even though God was close, He and the mountain were inaccessible.
The writer of Hebrews contrasts Sinai with Mt. Zion and pictures it as a place of welcome. It is as crowded as Sinai was desolate. It is not simply another mountain but an entire city, the Heavenly Jerusalem. God is there and He is joyously worshiped by angels and the redeemed. The Psalmist writes, “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, In the city of our God, His holy mountain. Beautiful in elevation, the joy of the whole earth, Is Mount Zion in the far north, The city of the great King. God, in her palaces, Has made Himself known as a stronghold.” (Psalm 48:1–3, NASB) While there is a physical Jerusalem, a real Mount Zion where God’s Temple once stood the writer of Hebrew’s sees something much larger.
Let’s consider some of the comparisons painted by Hebrews.
The mountain: the first is material and tangible while the second is spiritual and heavenly. This physical reality carried forward in the Tabernacle and later on in the Temple. In contrast, Mt. Zion (or we could say God’s Kingdom) is not limited to a particular place and time but is found wherever people gather in the name of Jesus.
The assembly, the gathering of people present at each. The gathering at Mt. Sinai is fearful and filled with doubts. The picture of Mt. Zion displays joy, fellowship, worship with deep respect and awe of God’s splendor.
God: Even God seems different in both pictures. At Sinai God desires His people to draw near but knows that they cannot. He sets specific boundaries with harsh punishments. Fear seems to be the word of the day. Mt. Zion paints a picture of joy, welcome, family, and fellowship. Both mountains display God’s glory.
We shouldn’t look at them and determine that one is good and the other bad. It’s really more like good and better. Or perhaps the greater truth is that Sinai was preparation and foreshadowing of the fullness of the truth contained in the Kingdom of God. Paul wrote about this to the Corinthians, “But if the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones, came with glory, so that the sons of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face, fading as it was, how will the ministry of the Spirit fail to be even more with glory? For if the ministry of condemnation has glory, much more does the ministry of righteousness abound in glory. For indeed what had glory, in this case has no glory because of the glory that surpasses it. For if that which fades away was with glory, much more that which remains is in glory.” (2 Corinthians 3:7–11, NASB95) All that Mt. Sinai portrays, the law, the tabernacle, the sacrifice of bulls and goats has glory. Let’s look at it this way. The Law of Moses, what Paul called the ministry of condemnation and death, lit a candle in a dark world. The ministry of life and righteousness brought about by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is brighter than the sun at high noon on a cloudless day.
Let’s turn a corner and consider the three words found in our text. Now I may just have confused you for there are obviously more than three words in the verses we’ve read out of Hebrews. The text itself references three unique messages. One from God at Sinai, one from the blood of Abel, and one from the blood of Christ. The first word is found in the thunder of Sinai. The text says, “to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them.” That thunderous word pronounced law, described the tabernacle to be built and prescribed the sacrifice and worship to be performed there. With the law came the knowledge of sin, guilt, and the just punishments for sin. Paul wrote, “Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.” (Romans 3:19–20, NASB95) The first word spoke law and resulted in the knowledge of sin and the justification for judgment.
The second and third words are found the last verse of our text “to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” I’m going to take them in reverse order. The second word is described as being the blood of Abel. So what word did the blood of Abel speak? We read in Genesis, “And it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground.” (Genesis 4:8–10, NASB95) We can get a better glimpse of what Abel’s blood was crying from another verse. In Revelation there is a scene in heaven that also talks about the cries of the slain, “When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”” (Revelation 6:9–10, NASB95) The second word speaks vengeance, vindication, justice, judgment, and wrath.
The third word is the sprinkled blood. While not specified I believe that the writer of Hebrews sees the sprinkling of blood on the Mercy Seat of God. The law stipulated that once a year the High Priest would enter the innermost chamber of the tabernacle, the holy of holies, and sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice on the Mercy Seat which covered the Ark of the Covenant. But the writer does not mean the sprinkled blood of bulls and goats but something he wrote about earlier in the book. Hebrews chapter nine says, “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Hebrews 9:11–14, NASB95) That’s the better word, Jesus’ blood sprinkled on the heavenly Mercy seat, once and for all, for our sins. This third word, this better word, speaks forgiveness, speaks cleansing, speaks righteousness, speaks invitation, speaks new life, speaks mercy, speaks freedom, speaks love, and speaks grace.
What does all of this mean to you and I today, right here, right now? I believe that God desires us to choose the kingdom and the word which cannot be shaken. I believe that God desires each of us to draw near to Him in a vital relationship. I believe that God calls us now to a higher law than that given at Sinai, a law filled with possible impossibilities, a law that leads to life instead of death. Paul wrote to the Romans, “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:1–4, NASB95) You see the focus of the Jewish law is contained in “thou shall not”. From the time of Moses to the time of Christ, Jewish scholars spent their time trying to determine what was and was not sin. But while the law was and is perfect it could not be perfectly kept.
You see, the choice set before us is whether we walk in law or whether we walk in grace? Do we walk in judgment or do we walk in mercy? Do we walk in condemnation, guilt, and shame or do we walk in forgiveness and freedom? In my opening, I laid out a path that looked toward two mountains, three words, and one grace. It’s time to consider grace.
The context of what we have read in Hebrews is surrounded by twelve encouragements, three of which mention or reflect grace. The whole context begins at 12:14 and ends at 13:9. Instead of reading all of it I’ll give them to you in outline form.
- Pursue Peace and Sanctification – 12:14
- See that no one comes short of Grace – 12:15 (Gal 5:4)
- Allow no root of bitterness – 12:15
- Avoid self-centeredness (immoral and godless) like Easu – 12:16
- Have gratitude and thankfulness – 12:28 or Let us hold on to God’s grace (JB) in our service to God and do so with reverence and awe.
- Continue to love each other – 13:1
- Show hospitality to all – 13:2
- Remember those suffering for the name of Jesus – 13:3
- Honor Marriage – 13:4
- Be Content with what you have – 13:5
- Remember your leaders and imitate their faith – 13:7
- Be careful to be strengthened by grace – 13:9
Three times, and in three different ways, grace is mentioned. The first is found in 12:15 – “see to it that no one comes short of the grace of God.” There is something about mankind’s twisted spirit that desires to judge by the law (either man’s or God’s) rather than for someone to be freed by God’s grace. We seem to enjoy pointing out someone’s faults rather than helping them acquire God’s abundant grace. The second mention of grace is in 12:28. Most translations say something along the lines of “let us show gratitude”. This is a reflection of grace. It is the same grace we see in the words please, thank you, and you’re welcome. If we approach God by law and law-keeping, there is no need for gratitude because we did it ourselves. But when we recognize that all we have is by grace through faith and nothing that we did or could do then our hearts can soar with thanksgiving. The third mention of grace is in 13:9 with the admonition – “Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings; for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, through which those who were so occupied were not benefited.” (Hebrews 13:9, NASB95) Be strengthened in grace and not in law keeping. God’s kingdom is not like an amusement park ride with the sign “All riders must be at least 42 inches tall.” When we enter God’s kingdom, we receive salvation, forgiveness, and righteousness because of the grace of God through Jesus Christ and not how well we measure up.
One warning is in order. It seems that there are two extremes in the church. Those that live by the law, setting standards and judging others by them. And those that think that anything goes, that God’s law is somehow null and void. We are warned in scripture to avoid both of these errors. We’ve talked at length about the first, let me give one warning about the second. The law of love, the law of the Spirit of Life in Christ, the perfect law of liberty does not mean that we ignore God’s law but that we go way beyond it. Think of it as a child learning to ride a bicycle. At first, they have training wheels, something to keep them in check, something to help them stay up. Eventually, the training wheels come off because they are no longer needed. The law is like training wheels. Paul put it this way, “But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:23–26, NASB95) There is freedom in Christ. We are no longer justified by keeping the law. But our desire as followers of Christ is to go beyond. No longer is the boundary murder but the anger that lives in our heart. No longer is the line drawn at adultery but the lust from which it springs. Get the picture?
My invitation and challenge today is to walk in grace. If you’ve tried to live up to the law and failed. Or if you’ve ignored the law, becoming a law to yourself. There is grace for you today through faith in Jesus Christ. The way is simple: confess to God that you’ve failed, that you’ve sinned. Choose to turn from sin and to Christ. Ask and receive by grace the forgiveness that God lavishly supplies through the blood of Jesus Christ.
For those that are following Christ already. Recognize the kingdom we have been called to walk in. If you want to judge something, judge how you can help others fully participate in God’s grace. Choose to speak the better word of forgiveness and grace instead of the lesser words of vengeance and wrath. Yes, we see people’s sin. Hopefully, we see our own even more clearly. Choose the greater light found in the ministry of righteousness and reconciliation instead of settling for the lesser light of condemnation. Most of all hold fast to the grace of Jesus Christ with steadfastness and thanksgiving.
This post is longer than most, it is the text of a sermon presented at New Life Community Church in Henry Illinois on September 20, 2015.