Hebrews 12:18-24


Last Sunday's epistle warned us not to rebel against God when we are chastised by Him. Verses 14-17 and 25-29 continue that warning and encouragement. Our text is found in the middle of this section. It give us reason why we need not nor should not rebel against the Lord or drift away from the things which we have learned.

Verses 18-24 could be considered a grand parenthesis in this warning section, verses 17-29. These verses speak of the proper motivation of the Christian. It is not the fear and dread which the children of Israel experienced at Mt. Sinai but rather the joy and confidence experienced by those who have approached Mt. Zion.

The Law threatens us and shows us our sins. The Gospel comforts us and covers our sins. The Gospel makes us loyal and faithful to the Lord and causes us to run the race of life as we ought run it.

Our pericope comprises two sentences: Verses 18-21 and verses 22-24. Both begin with the verb "you have come."

Hebrews 12:18 You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm;

This verse introduces the explanation, the reason for which we do not endure. It is answered in verse 22. The word "Sinai" is not mentioned here but is implicit in the text. The details of verses 18-21 are taken from Deuteronomy 4 and 5 and Exodus 19 and 20. The seven details mentioned here in verses 18-19 are attendant to the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai.

The word "mountain" is added by some of the versions. It includes that idea but represents more. The Mosaic Law involved also the ceremonial law which is called "the elements of the world" in Galatians and Colossians. The ceremonial law not only reminded the people that they were sinful but also contained shadows of the Gospel which were to be fulfilled in Christ Jesus. The ceremonial law tended toward the physical, tangible and touchable. The temple itself in Jerusalem was a tangible thing. It was a shadow of then Christ Who was to come. When He said to His enemies: "Destroy this temple, etc.," He meant Himself as the fulfillment of the physical temple.

The Sabbath day was a temporary thing. It denoted rest. It was fulfilled in Christ and therefore is no more. The writer of verse 18 in our text says: "You have not approached that which can be touched."

Now there follow four items which were attendant to the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai: the blazing fire, darkness, gloom and storm. The writer is not saying that the people of the Old Covenant had nothing but the Sinaitic Covenant. We know from chapter 11 that they had more than that. They had also the Abrahamitic Covenant. The Sinaitic Covenant is the Law of God. The Abrahamitic Covenant is the Gospel of God. The former shows us our sin. The latter shows us the grace of God. The former condemns. The latter comforts.

Hebrews 12:19 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,

See Exodus 20:18-26. When the people heard the sound of the trumpet and God Himself speaking they became terrified and asked that nothing more be said. This is how man reacts to the Law of God. Paul speaks of this at Galatians 3:19-24 and Galatians 4:1-3. There we are plainly told that the Law shows us our sins, could not make us alive, locked us in under sin, enslaves us, keeps us in bondage. The writer to the Hebrews is saying: "You have approached more than that."

Hebrews 12:20 because they could not bear what was commanded: "If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned."

They could not endure that which was being commanded. Perhaps the writer is implicitly saying: "How can you endure chastisement unless you have more than Mt. Sinai and all that it stands for?"

Now the writer quotes the command. See Exodus 19:12-13. If even (only) an animal, implying how much more a human being. The point is that the Law threatens punishment. It holds out no hope of salvation.

Guthrie: Throughout the era of law, separateness had been a feature of God's dealing with his people, as the holy of holies showed.

That is correct. Read Hebrews 9:6-10. There we are told that only the High Priest could enter the Most Holy Place once a year, on the day of Atonement, and thus the Holy Spirit indicated that direct access to God was not yet available. But then we are told in Hebrews 10:19-22 that we should now draw near to the very presence of God through the blood of Jesus Christ.

Hebrews 12:21 The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, "I am trembling with fear."

Bengel: Moses' words 'I exceedingly fear and quake,' are not recorded in the Pentateuchal descriptions of the Sinai theophany; the closest Old Testament parallel is in Deuteronomy 9:19, where he reminds the people of his supplication for them after the incident of the golden calf: 'For I was afraid of the anger and hot displeasure, wherewith Jehovah was wroth against you to destroy you.' Another parallel appears in Stephen's speech, where in face of the theophany at the burning bush 'Moses trembled, and durst not behold,' Acts 7:32.

Moses was known as a faithful servant of God who served in God's house, Hebrews 3:5. He was privileged to write of Christ, John 5:46. He was privileged to appear with Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration, Luke 9:30. And yet he trembled and was exceedingly afraid when God spoke to the people on Mt. Sinai.

In Hebrews 12:18-21 the writer is speaking about the entire Mosaic economy just as Paul was speaking of it in Galatians 4:24-25. The Law enslaved, imprisoned, caused fear and terror, could not save people. But already in the Old Testament God gave His people more than the Law of Moses. That is very clear from chapter 11 where the writer speaks about the faith of the saints in the promises of God which looked forward to Christ.

Hebrews 12:22 But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly,

"But" means "quite to the contrary." By virtue of conversion the listeners have permanently come to God.

Lenski: 'You have come' i.e. are still there ever to remain . . . Sinai was necessary only because of transgression. The completion is Mt. Zion and all that goes with Mt. Zion. . . . Israel came to the physical Mount; this Zion is heavenly. Both are called Mount, but what a vast difference.
Guthrie: There is a poetic quality about the style in the following full statement of the Christian position. The Greek contains no articles until the last word in verse 24 (Abel).
Bengel: 'You have come' having received the faith of the New Testament . . . . There is described here the exalted state of New Testament believers, perfected through communion with the Church, and with Christ and God Himself . . . Mt. Zion, this is the seat of Christ's dispensation.
Kretzmann: Because David lived on Mount Zion and in the city of Jerusalem, and because the salvation of the Messiah was to take its beginning from this neighborhood, therefore the congregation and communion of saints, where God lives with His salvation in Christ, commonly called Mount Zion, the city of God, in the prophecies . . . The ideal Zion is the place where God manifests His presence, the fullness of His grace in Christ.

The writer is speaking about the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints, both those on earth and those in heaven. See Ephesians 1:10 and Colossians 1:20.

The writer speaks of the city of the living God. It is a permanent dwelling place which belongs to God Who revives and refreshes man through the Gospel. He calls it "heavenly Jerusalem." In 13:14 he says that we set our hearts on the city which is to come, everlasting life. But already on this earth we have a heavenly Jerusalem, evidently the same of which Paul speaks at Galatians 4:26. "The Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all." Here he speaks of the holy Christian Church on earth.

We have approached and are in fellowship with countless hosts of holy angels. That is a breath-taking thought.

Guthrie: The innumerable angels is what impresses most in this scene. God dwells among a worshipping society . . . These angels are the 'ministering spirits' set out to serve.
Westcott: These are angels and men, no longer separated, as at Sinai, by signs of great terror, but united in one vast assembly.
Lenski: Since Christ has entered heaven after his work of redemption, the whole angel world rings with festal panegyrics, Revelation 5:1-12.

Hebrews 12:23 to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect,

"Church" is "assembly." We are speaking of the communion of saints.

"Firstborn" denotes all of God's true children who are such because Christ Himself is called the "first-born" in Colossians 1:15.

Kretzmann: We belong, by faith, to the great festival assembly, to the congregation of God's first-born children, those that have been converted to faith in the foremost First-born, the eternal Son of God.

"Names written in heaven." The Lutheran Church has always maintained that this denotes the elect. The person whose name is written in heaven is assured that no one will ever snatch him out of Jesus' hand, John 10:28.

Lenski: The expression goes back to Jesus' word spoken in Luke 10:20 but this itself goes far back into the Old Testament. Exodus 32:32; Psalm 69:28; Isaiah 4:3; Daniel 12:1. The passages found in Revelation 3:5; 13:8; 20:12, are familiar, especially 21:27. Through the portals of the New Jerusalem, into the eternal communion with God, none shall enter 'but they which are written in the Lamb's book of life.'

"God, the judge of all men." Contextually the meaning is that God is on their side, judges in their favor and has a filial relationship with them.

Bruce: The mention of God as judge in this context is calculated to emphasize the solemnity of the Christian's responsibility.

By context he evidently means what precedes and follows verses 18-24. We think Bengel is more correct.

Bengel: Your Judge, favorable to you, opposed to your enemies.
Westcott: We realize the presence of the Judge, and also of those for whom His work has been fulfilled in righteousness.

Now we come to the final phrase in this verse: "and to the spirits of just persons brought to their goal." Guthrie understands this of all believers. Bruce thinks it means believers of pre-Christian days who were 'made perfect' when Christ offered Himself for them. Bengel is of the opinion that it means New Testament believers, who enjoy, after their death, the benefit of the perfection affected by Christ's death. Lenski thinks that it speaks of those who are brought to the final goal by a blessed death.

Kretzmann: We are even one great congregation with the spirits of the saints that have reached the final perfection, the last goal, the bliss of heaven, Luke 23:43; 2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:23.

All agree that "spirits" denotes souls. All agree this refers to people who are justified.

Hebrews 12:24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

Last but not least you have approached the One Whose Person and Work is central to everything, Jesus, the Mediator of a new Covenant.

Bengel: The Mediator, formerly Moses, the very ambassador, was afraid and trembled; now access has been granted to the Mediator of the New Testament.
Ylvisaker: 'New' from the point of view of time, but 'better' as to quality or character. This testament is new, to be sure, as to time, Hebrews 12:24, but it is the quality which is to be emphasized.
Guthrie: Here only is the covenant described as new in the sense of 'recent' instead of new in the sense of character, as in 8:8,13 and 9:15.
Westcott: The Covenant was in relation to the Hebrews 'new' in time and not only 'new' in substance.

"Something better" is a key word in this Epistle.

Lenski: Christ, too, was murdered, but his blood speaks as we read in Luke 23:34. Christ's blood speaks of expiation, reconciliation, pardon even as it is intended for sprinkling and cleansing, 1 John 1:7.
Kretzmann: All this, however, is possible because we have come to the great Mediator of the New Testament, to Jesus, who restored mankind to the original relation of children to the heavenly Father, through His own holy, innocent blood, with which we have been sprinkled in faith . . . . The blood of Jesus Christ has cleansed us from all sins, and therefore pleads before God with a voice so loud and persuasive that it secures perfect righteousness for us.
Bengel: This better thing is the clearer revelation of the promised salvation, its surer confirmation, a nearer expectation, through Christ's manifestation, and finally, salvation itself and glory.
Westcott: That blood of Abel, appealing to God, called vengeance, and making itself heard in the heart of Cain, brought despair; but the blood of Christ pleads with God for forgiveness and speaks peace to man.

Look at stanza four of the hymn "Glory be to Jesus," TLH #158 and LW #98.

Read the context again, verses 14-17 and 25-29. Sanctification is not easy. It can be brutally difficult. Our text, verses 18-24, is a glorious comfort for the beleaguered Christian. We live under the shadow of God's grace and favor. We are in the company of God's saints both of the Old Testament and those of the New Testament. Let us not grow weary. It is better farther on.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series C Epistle Texts, Sundays After Pentecost, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1985, pp. 70-73. Used with permission.

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