If you are like me you sometimes find it difficult to say good bye to your favorite piece of clothing. I recently had to part with a tee shirt. It was a shirt from my daughter’s soccer league. Since my girls have played a lot of soccer, I have a thousand of these shirts. But this one was special.
But it was sad to see it go. I had worn it for almost 10 years. It was paper thin and holes were starting to develop in it. I was really attached to this shirt. Looking back, I even think I went through a little ceremony before throwing it away. I laid it out on the bed real nice. I took a picture of it. And I stood there for a moment reflecting back to that team. It was kind of like a little funeral for my shirt.
But it’s hard to break with things that have been so much a part of your life. People feel this way about all kinds of things. Why is it that elderly folks don’t want to move into an assisted living complex? It’s because they’d have to leave their house. And that house was where they lived their lives and created memories. There’s a sense in which their identity is in the house.
It is hard to part with these kinds of things.
And when you conceive of it this way, you can understand why these Hebrews were drawn to their old Jewish ways and customs. That was very much part of who they were. And you will understand that it is going to take a good deal of convincing to help them part with those old ways.
The book of Hebrews has certainly been filled with many masterful arguments. And our passage this morning is just another attempt to pry them away.
The design of this passage is to impress upon us once again the supremacy of the new covenant. The author setting up an contrast between the old covenant and the new covenant. And he uses the metaphors of these two mountains. The first mountain mentioned is Mt. Sinai and it represents the old covenant. Then there is Mt. Zion, which represents the new covenant.
Mt. Sinai, of course, is a prime choice because that is where the old covenant was constituted. After God brought his people out of Egypt, they gathered at Mt. Sinai. There God appeared to them and gave them His law.
Mt. Zion is a good contrast because all through Scripture Zion represents the dwelling place of God; it’s the place where God was said to commune with his people. So Zion represents the place of supreme spiritual significance, and therefore it makes a good image for the New Covenant.
And as he puts these two mountains in juxtaposition, we are to see all that much more clearly the superiority of faith in Jesus.
But before we examine this passage in detail, I’d like to take a second and think about the two mountain thing a little more. I wonder if there is some background that we should keep in mind; something not expressly stated.
I. What may be in the background of the text?
I wonder if there is an allusion here to the two other mountains that are mentioned in the OT. He’s talking about Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion, but—if you are familiar with the OT, as these Hebrews no doubt would have been, then you might know that there are two other mountains that are significant in the life of Israel.
In the book of Deuteronomy we read about two other mountains that were put in juxtaposition: Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim. In Deut. 11 Moses tells the people that when they enter into the Promised Land they were to split into two groups, with one group standing on Mt. Ebal (which was to the North) and one on Mt. Gerizim (opposite it to the south). And when they gathered there on Mount Ebal the Levites were to read a set of curses. And all the people were to answer, “Amen.” Then, those gathered on Mt. Gerizim were to have the blessings of the covenant read to them, and they were to answer in unison, “Amen.”
Of course, the Israelites did this very thing when they came into the land. After the battle of Ai, Joshua split them up and had the blessings and the curses read on each of the mountains.
Now, as the author pens this I wonder if he’s got that episode in the background. I know that as I read this passage my mind automatically calls it up. And I can’t help but think that a staunch Jew, who would have been steeped in the Scriptures much more than me—who would have probably passed by these mountains on a regular basis and been much more familiar with what went on at that historical site—I can’t help but think that he would have been mentally transported to these two mountains and recalled that event.
And if that is in the background, what a message it would send. What is the old covenant? What do you find if you go back to it? You find nothing but curses. There is no life there. There is only and terror and darkness. There is nothing but death and fear and despairing hopelessness. If you go back to the old covenant, you are going to be cursed.
But what do you find in Christ? There is blessing and favor and life. When you come to Jesus you experience joy and safety and the splendor of His eternal grace.
I can’t help but think that the author intends us to hear this in the back of our minds. It’s kind of a tiny echo bouncing off these mountains. And it is here to remind us, perhaps one last time, of the need to wholeheartedly trust Christ.
We are drawing near to the end of this epistle. And I think that it is appropriate to reiterate it just one more time: Do you know where you stand with Christ? Are you truly following Him and doing so with an undivided heart?
There is no room for wavering here. You have to recognize that you have set before you the way of life and the way of death. If you chose to go back to the world, then you need to know that such a route is the road of curses. It ends in death and destruction.
Sure, it might be easier in the short term. If you decide to give in to your friends and give up the whole Christianity thing, then yeah, you might find life a little less bothersome. When Satan has you in his clutches, he won’t trouble you. He will try and make your life as comfortable as possible. But if you side with the god of postmodernism, or atheism, or some other worldly belief, you have to know that it will only be good for the short term.
Siding with Christ might mean that you suffer a bit. You’ll have some trials and tribulations that you experience—and who knows, it might be pretty ruckus stuff that you are made to endure, but—you have to understand that, ultimately, it is still the way of blessing. The only way to avert the curses that will befall you and enjoy the blessing of eternal life is to remain beholden to Christ.
But whether or not that is in the background shouldn’t make too much of a difference. If it is there, there is a good message to heed. But even if it isn’t, the passage still provides us with every encouragement to be found in Christ. What is explicitly mentioned in these verses still show us the glory of faith in Christ.
II. What is explicit in the text?
There are at least 4 ways that this passage explicitly shows the glory and grandeur of the new covenant. When we put them in contrast like this what we find, first of all, is that there is a difference in substance.
A. Its substance is different
Look at verse 18. It starts off by saying, “You have not come to what may be touched.” Now, some of you will read this and say, “Hey, wait a minute. They weren’t allowed to touch Mt. Sinai.” You’ll probably remember that God commanded the people of Israel to back up and make sure they didn’t touch the mountain. If they did they would be put to death.
But when it says, “You have not come to what may be touched” it’s not talking about that. It’s reminding us that the new covenant is substantially different from the old covenant. The old covenant was one that was essentially earthly in nature. It was vulgar because its origin and makeup were primarily earth bound.
But Christ has brought in a kingdom that cannot be touched. That’s because it is not material in nature. It is spiritual. You might even say that it is eschatological. That’s because it has to do with the end times and the heavenly realities that God has in store for us.
In the past we’ve talked about the types and the shadows of the OT and we’ve seen how they were inferior to the heavenly realities. The tabernacle was just a picture of the ultimate dwelling place of God.
The same sort of thing is being said in this opening line. The Old covenant was very much tangible and crude in its form. What we have in Christ is superior because it is heavenly and has the full expression of divine glory.
So the new covenant is inherently better because substantially it is heavenly (and therefore it is greater).
But it’s greater, not just by virtue of its substance; it’s a better covenant by virtue of its mood.
B. Its mood is different
It’s easy to tell that the mood at Mt. Sinai wasn’t a happy one. It says in verse 18 that there was “blazing fire and darkness and gloom.” There was a tempest swirling around the mountain. In other words, the winds were blowing hysterically, as if a terrible storm (or maybe even a tornado) was sweeping in upon them. Then you have trumpets blaring and this voice that was so overwhelming (so awful—as they said in olden days) that it “made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them.”
Not only did it scare the socks off the people, but it says that even Moses was terrified. Moses was called by God. He was considered the friend of God. Of all the people in the OT, you’d think that Moses would be a rock of Gibraltar. But this was so overwhelming of an event that even he was petrified by it.
But what is the mood of the new covenant? When you look down at verses 22-23 you see the mood is quite different. It talks about angels in festal gathering. There’s an assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven. In other words, there are all the saints enjoying the fruits of eternal bliss. So the mood here is one of happiness and celebration. It is light and joyous.
And the point is that if you bail on Christ, you are going to miss the party. You will miss out on all the joy. If you want to face God on the basis of the law and your own works, then you will find yourself standing before a holy God who is terribly angry at every infraction of that law. If you want to base your relationship upon your ability to please God, then you might as well imagine yourself standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai.
But if you want joy and jubilation, then you need Christ. The only way to join in these festivities is through the grace afforded you in the new covenant.
Along with the substance and the mood, you also have different company.
C. Its company is different
And again, this is what makes the new covenant in Christ so much better. Don’t miss this: Who do you find standing around the foot of Mt. Sinai? It’s a bunch of quivering sinners. More than that, they are people who are actually telling God to be quiet! It says that they begged that God not speak to them. They wanted to shut the voice out of their minds and ease their ears from the overwhelming intensity of it all.
But what is that descriptive of? I can’t help but think that it is probably a depiction of the damned. That’s what hell is like. People are writhing in agony and desperately trying to shut God out.
Of course, you might want to say that the people at Sinai had a lack of company. God had come down to Mt. Sinai, but he didn’t draw near to them, did he? No, he didn’t. That’s the point of verse 20 when it says, “Not even a beast is allowed to touch the mountain.”
Under the old dispensation God did not have real communion with the people, did he? There was a sense in which God was with his people, sure. But there is another sense in which God was always just out of reach.
That’s what makes the new covenant so great. Look at what it says in verse 22. It says, “You have come to Mt. Zion, the city of the living God,…you’ve come to the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and you’ve come to God, the judge of all.”
This is saying that through Christ you actually have companionship with God. Christ makes it possible to be in the presence of God. You stand in his city, you enter his presence. You have the opportunity to draw near and commune with Him.
This is certainly one of the supreme features of the New Covenant. It is distinguished in that we have access to the Most High.
And that’s possible because our mediator is different. Yes, when you look at these two mountains you see that there is a difference of substance, there is a difference of mood, and the companions are different. But you shouldn’t miss the fact that there are two different mediators.
D. Its mediator is different
Look at poor Moses. Moses was the mediator of the Old Covenant. He was the go-between. That’s what a mediator does. He mediates. He stands between two parties in order to help them interact. A mediator ensures proper representation.
But look at Moses. He’s about to wet his toga. He is absolutely petrified.
But you see here, Moses doesn’t do a very good job. You kind of get the feeling that He doesn’t want the Lord to draw near any more than the people do.
But look what you get in the New Covenant. You get a mediator who reconciles God and man through the blood he shed.
You’ll notice that last little part. It says that his blood speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. You might remember the story of Cain and Abel. After Cain killed Abel, God came along and said to Cain, “The voice of your brother’s blood cries out from the ground.” His blood is personified and takes on the character of a little child who’s sitting there crying because he’s been victimized by some bully. So his blood cries out for revenge. His blood cries out “Vengeance!”
But what does the blood of Christ cry out? It cries out, “Mercy!”
There’s a song by Charles Wesley that talks about Christ’s role as a mediator. One of the stanzas picks up on this idea of Christ’s blood speaking a better word. :
Five bleeding wounds He bears; received on Calvary;
They pour effectual prayers; they strongly plead for me:
“Forgive him, O forgive,” they cry,
“Forgive him, O forgive,” they cry,
“Nor let that ransomed sinner die!”
Our mediator is greater; He doesn’t tremble when God comes near. He sheds his blood. And in doing so he gives us companionship with God.
One commentator said in regard to this passage that the comparison reminds us that there was much that was sublime in the Jewish dispensation. There were grand things that would awe the mind and grandeur that would restrain them by awe. But in Christ there is much more that will win one’s affections.
Indeed, the truths that are communicated here should win us over and make us knit more fully to Christ. May it ever be so.
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Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.