Captures And Captivated By Christ: Hebrews 12:18-24 – The New Way To Approach God

Grace For The Journey

The opening verses of chapter 12 call for running the Christian race.  We are to lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us and “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus,” our eyes fixed on Him, captured and captivated by His love and superior Gospel work on our behalf.  The writer goes through chapter 12 teaching that as you “run your race” or “live your life for Christ” you can expect God to chasten you, to remove some of the rough edges of your personality, to discipline you through your hardships and difficulties and persecution.  God’s purpose is to grow us in Christlikeness that we may “yield the peaceable fruit of righteousness.”  

In light of God’s love for us, we are to be strengthened.  We are to keep running and keep growing in holiness – doing things like verse 14: pursuing peace with all people and holiness; and looking out for any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble and by this many become defiled (verse 15).  A bitter person – just one bitter person in the church – can defile the entire body of Christ like a spreading cancer.

We must take care of the Body of Christ, holding one another accountable for our words and our actions.  Driving all of this emphasis on right behavior in the church is the love of God for His children.  God loves His children and does what is right for them.  Because of His love, God has innumerable blessings for His children that He means for them to enjoy.  The writer’s point is: Do not turn away from the Lord!  Do not run off course!  Do not leave the racetrack that leads to spiritual blessings!  Do not give up the race!

We left off yesterday at verses 16 and 17 where the writer warns us not to be like Esau, who left the race and gave up spiritual blessings for a bowl of stew.  Do not be like Esau, giving up when the going gets tough, giving up a spiritual inheritance, and settling for the passing pleasures of sin found in feeding the bodily appetite with a quick meal, looking only at the temporary physical things and forgetting all about the greater and eternal spiritual things. 

The writer goes on to talk about those greater spiritual things.  We are going to see that in our passage this morning.  As we go through these verses, I invite you to look for a major contrast between the old covenant and the new covenant.  It has been awhile since we have used those phrases, but be on the lookout for a contrast here from the old to the new and why the new is so much “better,” one of the key words in this letter, the word “better” used in reference to the new covenant.  

We get it when we can readily see the differences between two choices.  One does this and the other does that.  Contrast helps us see the better option.  This passage is a study in contrast.  Like a modern media marketer, the writer skillfully paints a picture for us, a vivid contrast.  The “black & white” is verses 18-21 and the “color” is verses 22-24.

What is the writer contrasting?  He is writing about how . . .

The benefits of the new covenant

Are vastly superior to the old covenant.

We will take a look at this contrast as we break down the passage into two main points illustrating two covenants, or two ways of approaching God . . .

1) A Somber Reflection On The Old Way Of Approaching God – Verses 18-21.

This is the “black & white.”  This is the inferior way.  This is what the writer wants us to see. 

The old way of approaching God

Is not as good as the new way.

It is helpful for us to remember who these people are that the writer is addressing in the Book of Hebrews.  These were people who had come out of the old covenant worship system of sacrifice and law and going to the temple.  When they said “Yes” to Jesus and received Him as Messiah and Lord, it cost them something.  They were cut off from their old relationships, many losing friends and family who were still under the old covenant.  They were cut off from the temple, a way of life that was all they knew.  The writer wants them to see . . .

That what they have gained in Jesus

Is so much better than what they lost

In the old way of worshiping.

And we have noted that truth in previous chapters.  We have noted that . . .

Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment

Of all those Old Testament

Types, shadows, and sacrifices.

They were all pointers – they all pointed to Jesus Christ, the One who is better, greater, and more superior to anyone or anything.

The writer wants to take his readers back

To the old way of approaching God. 

He wants them to see how inferior it

Was from the new way through Christ.

Verse 18 says, “For you have not come to the mountain that may be touched and that burned with fire, and to blackness and darkness and tempest”  Feel the heaviness of that?  Though he does not mention it by name, he is talking about Mount Sinai.  He is talking about when God’s people, the Israelites, gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai and Moses climbed the mountain to hear from God and receive God’s commands.

What becomes clearer is that the writer is contrasting this mountain, Mount Sinai, with Mount Zion, a mountain he does mention later in the text.  And these two mountains – Mount Sinai of the old covenant and Mount Zion of the new covenant – represent the former way of approaching God and the new, wonderful, and better way of approaching God.

He wants to remind them here of the old way of approach: “For you have not come to the mountain that may be touched.”  It may be touched, but they did not want to touch it!  This is his point.  Mount Sinai was merely physical, a physical mountain that could be touched and felt, but the Israelites were warned not to get too close to this mountain.  

He continues to describe what happened when the Israelites gathered there at the base of Mount Sinai.  What did they hear?  Verse 19 tells us, “And the sound of a trumpet and the voice of words, so that those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore.”  The background for this passage is Exodus 19 and 20.  You can also read about it in Deuteronomy 4 and 5.  But Exodus 19 and 20 in particular is where we find the dramatic events of Moses going up Mount Sinai to receive the 10 Commandments from God.  Moses went up the mountain and the people stayed at the foot of the mountain.

God manifested His presence there at the top of the mountain.  There was fire, and blackness, and darkness, and the sound of a loud trumpet blast as God thundered from the heavens, making His presence known there at Mount Sinai.  This was so intense that verse 19 says the people, “Begged that the word (God’s Word) should not be spoken to them anymore.”  The people trembled in the presence of God.  They feared God. 

Verse 20 goes on to say, “(For they could not endure what was commanded: “And if so much as a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned [my translation adds] or shot with an arrow.”  The writer is quoting Exodus 19:12: “You shall set bounds for the people all around, saying, ‘Take heed to yourselves that you do not go up to the mountain or touch its base. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death.’”  The phrase, “You shall set bounds (or boundaries) for the people” is God’s order to Moses.  There was a separation from God.  The people were separated from God because of God’s holiness.  This separation highlights the holiness of God.  God had consecrated the mountain for the manifesting of Himself as He appeared to Moses.  People are sinful and God is holy, so there needed to be a separation demonstrated on Mount Sinai or the people would die.  Verse 21 says, “And so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I am exceedingly afraid and trembling).”  If the Israelites trembled by merely standing at the base of the base of the mountain, we can well imagine what fear and terror Moses must have felt as he was even nearer to God!

All of this is meant to stress the fear and apprehension involved in the old way of approaching God.  Only Moses could go up in God’s presence and the people were separated from God.  Even Moses felt something of that separation as he trembled in the presence of God, like guilty children tremble in the presence of their parents, knowing that their rebellion may be punished.

Mount Sinai was a reminder to the people

Of their unworthiness to stand before God.

Mount Sinai shook and it was dark, and the scene is intense and even scary.  Now . . . Here comes the wonderful contrast.  First word of verse 22: “But…”  Now the scene changes.  Black & white is replaced with color.  The clouds lift.  The light shines.  And we read, “But you have come to Mount Zion…!”  Praise God.  And the writer from verses 22 to 24 writes about the glorious new approach to God under the wonderful new covenant fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  So, we move from a somber reflection upon the old way of approaching God and now . . .

2) A Special Rejoicing In The New Way Of Approaching God – Verses 22-24.

The old way was represented by a merely physical mountain, “the mountain that may be touched.”  That mountain, Mount Sinai, is now contrasted with Mount Zion, also a physical mountain, but being used by the writer to illustrate the spiritual truth of the Gospel. 

This is the new way of approaching God,

Through the merits of Jesus Christ,

The mediator of the new covenant.

The writer is using Mount Zion as a metaphor for the heavenly city.  The believer has not come to a physical mountain, but a spiritual mountain.  We have come to something that cannot be touched or grasped in a physical sense, but something touched and grasped in a spiritual sense.

Remember back in chapter 11, the writer talks about people who lived by grasping spiritual things that were true, but they were part of the invisible, spiritual realm.   Hebrews 11:13 says, “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.”  And Hebrews 11:27 says Moses endured, “… as seeing Him who is invisible.”

Verse 22 then says,“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels.”  Here it is now displayed in full color . . .

The new way of approach to God

Under the new covenant.

The storm is over and the sun is shining.  This new way is both something now entered into by believers, “you have come” to Mount Zion – and also something that still remains yet future in the fullest sense of fulfillment.  Mount Zion and “the city of the living God” is not merely a spiritual realm experienced in this life only, but also something greater in the future.

The phrase, “You have come” suggests that believers have already entered into this spiritual realm.  The grammar is perfect tense, meaning completed action with abiding results.  Believers have already come to Mount Zion.  At the same time, however, the spiritual realm today is not the final experience.  There is more to come!  There is the eternal city that is future tense, the “heavenly Jerusalem” to come mentioned in Revelation 21.  

While those of us who are Christians are in one sense “already” experiencing some of the benefits of the new covenant, there is the “not yet” that awaits us at the final consummation of all things.  Or put another way:

Christ’s kingdom

Has been inaugurated,

But

Not yet consummated.

We look forward to that final state of the new heavens and new earth where we will live forever and ever.

We are “now” there spiritually by faith in Christ.  We have come.  And this spiritual realm includes “an innumerable company of angels,” literally thousands upon thousands of  heavenly beings.  But there is more!

Verse 23 states, “to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect.”  There is so much in this verse!  The phrase “the general assembly” speaks of a “festal gathering” or “joyful assembly” of believers, the “church of the firstborn,” or “the joyful assembly of God’s firstborn children.”

We saw yesterday about Esau selling his birthright, his privileged position as the firstborn.  In the Old Testament age, the firstborn received special blessings of status and inheritance, leadership in the family, and material blessings of inheritance.  And, of course . . .

There was only one firstborn in each family. 

But . . . Under the new way of approaching God,

Every single Christian is a “firstborn” in the family of God!

Jesus is the Supreme “Firstborn” (Hebrews 1:6).  The Bible says in Colossians 1:15, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.”  And through His Gospel work He has “brought many sons to glory” (Hebrews 2:10) so that those who believe in Christ are positionally “in Him.”  We share in the inheritance of the Firstborn!  If we are believers, we are “in Christ Jesus,” and the Father is pleased with us because He is pleased with His Son!  We share in His dignity and status!  Hallelujah . . . Amen and amen!

The writer also describes believers as those “who are registered in heaven.”  If we believe in Christ and accept Him as our Savior and Lord, our names are written down on a registry in heaven.  All the names of God’s children, all believers, are listed in that great heavenly roll.  This speaks of permanency.  Our names are written down indelibly because of Jesus Christ.  As He remains forever, so our names remain forever.

The writer adds that believers have come “to God the Judge of all.”  As Creator of all the universe, He is also the Judge of all the universe.  Everyone must stand before Him to give an account of their lives.  

Believers are also described as “the spirits of just men made perfect.”  This refers to salvation in Christ; perfect not in the sense of our never making mistakes as Christians, but perfect and complete in God’s sight through Jesus Christ. 

Jesus does for us what

We cannot do ourselves.

Note it carefully: “just men made perfect.”  We do not make ourselves perfect.  He makes us perfect.  Jesus does this.  He is, remember, the author “and finisher” of our faith.  He completes us.  Hebrews 10:14 states, “For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.”

Verse 24 is the culmination of the passage – and really the entire book!  It says, “To Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.” 

Mount Sinai taught the cost of

Standing in the presence of God

Without necessary righteousness. 

Standing before the holy God

As an unclean sinner came

At a cost: death! 

Touch the mountain

And you will die.

Israel gathered at Mount Sinai where the Law was handed down by God.  But God’s people today do not gather at Sinai because Christ went there for us.  He fulfilled the Law of the Old Testament perfectly.  We could not keep the law consistently or perfectly.  None of us can!  Just try keeping the 10 Commandments and see how many you break before you fall asleep tonight.  

Jesus did not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it perfectly for us.  He lived a perfect life for which we can receive credit if we believe in Him, and He died a perfect substitutionary death taking our sin upon Himself, bearing our punishment, experiencing condemnation for us, and then rising from the dead.  If we believe, our sins are imputed to Him so that He died for our sins and rose from the dead for our justification.  

We don’t go to Mount Sinai today

Because Jesus has already

Gone there for us. 

He fulfilled the law

Perfectly for us.

The phrase “and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel” refers to Christ’s death on the cross where He shed His blood for our sins.  Christ’s blood shed for us is better than any animal sacrifice offered for sin in the Old Testament.    All those Old Testament animal sacrifices were temporary substitutes that pointed forward in time to the coming fulfillment of the Perfect Lamb of God – Jesus Christ – who takes away the sin of the world.

When the writer refers to this blood as that which “speaks of better things than that of Abel,” he may be alluding to Hebrews 11:4 where he had said with regard to Abel’s being killed that though he is dead he “still speaks.”  You will remember when Cain had killed Abel in Genesis 4 that God spoke to Cain and said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10), crying out for justice.  The writer may have in mind here the need for justice for sin, justice to set right those who have done wrong.

When Cain killed Abel and shed Abel’s blood,

Cain was driven away from God because of his sin. 

He was guilty and separated from God. 

When Christ’s blood was shed, however,

It brought people back to God, made people

Approachable to God and reconciled to God.

The writer may also be alluding to Abel’s sacrifice which he had offered in faith and was therefore recognized in the great roll call of faith in chapter 11.  Abel offered the firstborn of his flock, an animal sacrifice, apparently the very first of its kind.  An animal was slain, its blood being drained from the animal as Abel offered it to God as a sacrifice.  And as we have already noted, all of these animal sacrifices pointed forward to the Supreme and perfect once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our sins.  As we sing . .

.What can wash away my sin?

Nothing but the blood of Jesus!

What can make me whole again?

Nothing but the blood of Jesus!

In either case, the blood of Christ “speaks better things,” the better things of the Gospel.  This is the new way of approaching God that comes through Christ.

Thankfully, God does not take us to a terrible mountain, Mount Sinai, a mountain we cannot touch.  Through Christ, He takes us to Himself and allows us to draw near and touch our Savior!  

John writes in the opening verse of his first epistle, referring to Christ Jesus as: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled…the Word of life” (1 John 1:1).  We Christians do not now touch Him in a physical sense as the apostles did 2,000 years ago, but we will.  We behold Him now by faith and take hold of Him in a very real sense in the spiritual realm, fixing our eyes upon Him, hearing from Him as we read His Word, drawing real strength from His power and presence in our lives.

We really could not sing “He Touched Me” under the old covenant:

He touched me, oh He touched me,

And oh the joy that floods my soul!

No, we could not sing that song at Mount Sinai.  God’s holy touch would burn our flesh right off our bones!  We had no permanent covering for our sin.  But now through Christ we can sing . . .

Shackled by a heavy burden,

‘Neath a load of guilt and shame

Then the hand of Jesus touched me,

And now I am no longer the same

If you are not born of God, not one of the first born in Christ, then you stand before Mount Sinai.  If you hope to get where God is, you are going to have to climb that mountain of law and keep every single command perfectly – to climb that mountain through some kind of self-effort, or philosophy, or religion.  And the sad truth is that you will never make it.  Mount Sinai will thunder and consume you and God’s judgment will burn away your weak, ineffectual religiosity for, as the writer goes on to say in the last verse of this chapter, “our God is a consuming fire” (verse 29).

You try to come to God

In any way other than Jesus

You will remain separated from Him,

Separated from Him in life,

Separated from Him in death, in hell.

Let me close with some Final Reflections . . .

1) Is Your Name Registered In Heaven?  Verse 23.

—If not, what will you do about it today? (Repent and Trust Christ)

Is your name written down on the registry in heaven?  Is it recorded there?  Someone says, “Well, I’ve got my name on the church roll.”  That doesn’t mean a thing – except that you are a member!  You can have your name on the church roll and be lost.  You just joined an organization, but you have never repented of sin and trusted Jesus as Savior and Lord.  Turn to Christ today and be saved. 

2) If Your Name Is Registered In Heaven … Does It Show In Your Joyful Love And Living For Christ?

People who are saved love Jesus!  And long for His return.  The Bible says in Philippians 3:20, “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”  People who are saved rejoice that their name is written down in that heavenly registry.  Remember what Jesus in Luke 10:20 said to the 70 disciples when they returned to Him after doing their ministry?  They were all fired up and rejoicing that even the demons submitted to their authority.  Jesus said, “Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”

The most wonderful thing about accepting the Gospel is that our names are permanently written in heaven.  We are forever “in Christ Jesus.”  Do not rejoice in your ministry.  Do not rejoice merely in your health, your job, your girlfriend, your boyfriend, or your children.  Jesus says, “Rejoice that your name is written down in heaven!”

If your name is written down in heaven and you know that God accepts you in Christ, then you will love Jesus and you grow in Jesus daily through ongoing confession of sin, repenting from sin, and turning away from self and idols.  Your relationship with Christ is reflected in joyful growth in the Lord.  Knowing your name is written down in heaven is reflected in your love for God and for others.

This is God’s Word …

This is Grace for your Journey …

Rest and Rejoice in this eternal truth!

Pastor Terry

Ephesians 4:7 – “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.”

Hebrews 4:16 – “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

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