Don't Excuse Yourself From Zion, Lest You Get Sinai
Sermon Passage: Hebrews 12:18–29 | Preached to SGF | 2-14-2021
By Peder Kling
This sermon was not able to be recorded—so, no audio this week. Enjoy the Manuscript!
A Glorious Passage
Today’s passage is really an astounding passage. When we first began our sermon series through Hebrews, this is one of the passages that I became fixated with because it lists for us some mind-boggling blessings we receive when we come to God through the New Covenant. The contrast between the Old Covenant (Mt. Sinai) and the New Covenant (Mt. Zion) is really obvious here, isn’t it?
“You have not come" to the Old Covenant made on Sinai, verse 18. Then, just so we see the contrast, the author says in verse 22, “but you have come…” to the New Covenant on Zion. We're talking about amazing things to enjoy on Zion! And, did you see the past tense, there? This is something that is a reality for us now, here, today as we worship God.
But to make sure this really lands upon us as we press into this passage—hear the contrast one more time.
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.
Oh, but Christian, you have rather come to something much greater. In coming to Jesus, in coming to God’s worship service this morning, you have rather come
You have rather 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.
Do you want Mount Zion, or do you want Mount Sinai? When it’s put it that way, it really makes the choice easy for us.
But it’s almost awkward how, after such an attractive description of God’s blessings in Christ, Hebrews follows up these blessings with a warning—“see to it that you do not refuse him who is speaking”. Why on earth would I refuse that? We might want to think about that today.
Who Would Ever Reject Zion for Sinai? Four Considerations.
So today, we are going consider four matters that pertain to this passage.
First, we’re going to give attention to that warning, and a few other warnings like it in Hebrews. What does Hebrews has in mind when it says “don’t refuse him who is speaking”? Is it possible that we would ever be so foolish to reject Zion for Sinai?
Second, we need to consider Israel’s Attraction to Mount Sinai. Again—there doesn’t seem to be anything attractive about Sinai, and yet many Jews chose it over Christ. I think that’s important to think about, and we'll see how it might apply to us.
Third, we will consider God’s Appeal to Mount Zion. Don’t refuse him who is speaking—he’s speaking with a multi-layered appeal to Zion, not to Sinai. We need to hear him out, lest we refuse him.
Fourth, we’ll close with a most appropriate application to all this.
Consideration #1: Who Would Refuse Zion?
So, what about this warning? What sane mind would refuse someone who is speaking such a great blessing from Mount Zion?
The word “refuse” there is actually an interesting one in the Greek. It’s a euphemism. It’s the sort of thing you say when you’re at a dinner, and you don’t want to eat the food. You want to politely reject the food—“May I excuse myself? Thank you for this offer of food but something more important has come up”.
I think it might be better to translate this to say “see to it that you don’t excuse yourself” from him who is speaking—as if you have a better offer, a more important thing that you need to be tending to right now. Or, you just don’t care for what you’re hearing. Either way, yiou find a polite and acceptable way to refuse the offer.
Have you ever excused yourself from God’s gracious blessings? Have you excused yourself from worshipping God with the saints on the Lord’s day? Or, from praying daily? Or, from seeking his forgiveness and actually dealing with your sin, that he might forgive you? Have you excused yourself from the fruit of the spirit—“nah, his patience will get in the way right now. This matter I’m tending to is more important, and it needs my impatience, anxiety, or anger”.
We have so many important things that need our attention, right?
This sort of command has been all over Hebrews—don’t flippantly excuse yourself because of the pressures of this world. Hebrews 2 jumped right into these warnings. If you remember—chapter 2 verse 1 gives us this warning—“we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it”—slow, unintentional drifting, there. In the moment it seems necessary or acceptable given the demands of life. In that sermon on Hebrews 2, I said that Christians don’t drift because they forget about God or his salvation. They drift because they forget the greatnessof God and his salvation. They forget how precious it is, how worthy it is of our constant attention and affection. Pay close attention to what we’ve heard! The gospel—hear it, study it! Or in our passage, the same thing is told to us, “don’t excuse yourself from him who is speaking!” His speaking demands your attention.
Interestingly, the verses just prior to our sermon’s passage give us a picture of this when they warn us not to be like Esau. “Don’t be like Esau”, this passage says, “who sold his birthright—his inheritance in God’s kingdom—for a cup of stew”. What an awesome example of how flippant we can be, and how easily we can prioritize the things of this world over our heavenly possession in Christ. Esau sold that birthright, and he really lived a life of not caring. He had important things to tend to, I’m sure. I doubt that he consciously hated or didn’t want his birthright. He just didn’t want to protect it because he had other more important things. “I’ll deal with that when it’s time for me to receive it—when it comes to my front-burner”. Well, by that time it’s too late. You’ve spent an entire lifetime loving this world rather than God. You’ll end up very disappointed.
Ephesians 5:15 is a beautiful passage which helps with our priorities. We are to “look carefully how we walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil”. The days are evil—there are things that break, injustices to tend to, work to be done. And here Paul tells us to “make the best use of our time”—Esau thought the best use of his time was tending to the immediate needs of the world and not to grace, or to his inheritance. Sound familiar to you? If I asked you, “what is the best use of your time?”, what are some of the first things that come to your mind? If you read the next few verses in Ephesians 5 you will see that Paul describes the “best use of your time” is “being filled with the spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ”.
That’s all activity in the church—it’s activity done with God’s people, to God’s glory, with your face down in prayer and worship rather than your face pressing upon the needs of the day.
“You have come to Mount Zion”. You’re there. Now—in this worship service. You’re there on Wednesday when you are at work or at your kids’ after school activity. “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 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, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word.” If we really embraced this reality and blessings as immediately upon us at all times in Christ, I think our priorities and perspectives on life might change.
And again—“see to it that you don’t excuse yourself from him who is speaking”. He is speaking to you from Zion, with all the blessings of Zion. He is calling you to turn to him with true repentance and faith, that you might be forgiven, strengthened, encouraged, and delighted with his presence.
Now, that’s all helpful for us to see. It’s convicting. But I want to think about the immediate audience of this letter—Jews who really were attracted to Mount Sinai. They really were attracted to the law. They were tempted to excuse themselves from Christ not because of a busy 21st century lifestyle, but because they loved the Mosaic Law and the glory of Mount Sinai.
Consideration #2: Israel’s Attraction to Mount Sinai, and Mistaken Zeal
What was Israel’s attraction to Mount Sinai—or, to the law more generally? If you read the first part of our passage, you might think the Jews to be crazy for loving the law and the Mosaic covenant. Verses 18–21 portray the Old Covenant as something to run away from—to be terrified of. We aren’t going to find their attraction to Mount Sinai in those verses.
We have to go somewhere else to see why the Jews were so fixated on Sinai, and the law.
Paul gives us one answer in Romans 10 verse 2. There, he says of his Jewish kinsmen that his “I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God but not according to knowledge.”
Did you catch that? “They had a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge”—that is, a not according to a trueknowledge of him and his ways. Isn’t that just a little bit scary? You can have a zeal for God, but your zeal is not “according to knowledge”. It’s based upon lies. Your zeal is made up—fired up upon falsehood. Paul even says in these verses that he prays for their salvation—so, their zeal is damning! They were zealous according to damning knowledge about God! Oh, did the Jews have knowledge—they had all kinds of knowledge. They were proud of their knowledge. The Pharisees flouted themselves around as academic elites—but “not according to knowledge”, Paul says.
So in other words, Israel’s attraction to Mount Sinai and the Law was “not according to knowledge”.
In one chapter, Jesus both exposes this damning, mistaken knowledge of the Jews, and he reveals the sort of knowledge they should have had. That chapter is John 3, where he rebukes Nicodemus. Perhaps you remember the story. Nicodemus was a pharisee, a teacher of the law with all kinds of knowledge and public recognition for his knowledge. He is described as a “ruler of the Jews” in John 3:1. He came to Jesus and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him”. So, Jesus gives Nicodemus a curveball and says to him, “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God”. And then Jesus goes on to say that the natural man who is born of a woman is just that—born of the flesh. He thinks only according to the flesh, and cannot understand things of the spirit unless he is born again. That’s the knowledge that saves. It’s the gospel. God needs to give you new life according to the Spirit, not the flesh.
And, Nicodemus should have understood what Jesus was saying! The Old Testament doesn’t use the word “born again”, or “rebirth” explicitly—but the concept is all over, and it is described as a matter of salvation! The OT says that to be saved, God must put a new heart and a new mind, and a new spirit within you.
But Nicodemus is so short-sighted in his religious zeal that he cannot look past the law. He could not imagine that when God said in the OT that Israel needed a new heart (Deut 29:4), he really meant that Isreal’s hard heart needed to be replaced with a softened heart. Nicodemus could not imagine that when God promised he really would one day work a “new spirit” into his people (Ezek 11:19), he really meant their spirit would be changed to love God rather than to despise him.
And so, Nicodemus didn’t understand a lick of what Jesus was saying. “You need to be born again by the Spirit? How can these things be?” To this we might say: "Nicodemus! Did you not read Ezekiel 36?! 'Say to these dry bones, LIVE!'".
Do you know what Jesus says to him? “Are you the teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” That’s a rebuke. Jesus is saying to Nicodemus, “you’ve studied scriptures, you teach them to God’s people, and yet you don’t get what it means to be saved!” You’re zealous for the law and your devotion to God, but you don’t realize that the law condemns you before God! You are using the law to make yourself look good, when the law is designed to make you look bad. It is designed to expose your sin and your need for grace; to humble you. It is not designed to uplift and glorify you.
Paul says in Romans 8:9 that “when the law came, sin came alive and I died.” Or in Galatians 2:19, he says “through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God”. The law is designed to kill you—to humble you and make you say “Lord I cannot fulfill your demand of righteousness.” “I have transgressed this law and deserve your just wrath—to where can I go?” And in that humble confession, you die to yourself. You lay down all your pride, all your self-righteousness, all your zealous piety before God only to receive the salvation offered to you in Christ who fulfilled all righteousness on your behalf.
All this is to simply show that while Israel had a zeal for God—they were greatly attracted to his law and person—it was not according to knowledge. It was a damning zeal, and a damning knowledge. Having a zeal for God—like Nicodemus did—doesn’t mean you’re saved. Your zeal doesn’t save you. “Being on fire for Jesus” doesn’t save you. Christ’s death and righteousness—and his life-giving Spirit—saves you. Zeal according to that knowledge, fueled by that gospel, is a good thing. All other zeal takes you to hell.
And, this misplaced zeal according to false knowledge isn’t a problem just for the Jews. Christians fall prey to this too. Jesus said (in Matt 7:21), “22 many [not a few—many] will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’” Do you know what kind of person does those things? A person “on fire for the Lord”. A zealous Christian. You’ll never see a lazy Christian—or an indifferent Christian—doing those things. You know what Jesus will say to many of these people? “23then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ I never knew you—and the assumption there is that if Jesus never knew you, then you never knew Jesus. It was a zeal “not according to knowledge”. And, what works does this zeal produce? Lawlessness.
So, what does this all have to do with today’s passage? Well, again, Hebrews is written to early Jewish Christians who were tempted to excuse themselves from the gospel of Christ because they had the law. They were tempted to say, “no thank you” to Jesus because they were zealous for the law. They had Judaism—and, the prestige and honor of law keeping in the community. They had Jewish families who were threatening to kick them out of the community if they continued in their new loyalty to Jesus. That’s what Jesus meant when he said “I have come to turn a man against his father, and daughter against his mother” (Matt 10:35). The pressures and attractions to Judaism and the Mosaic Covenant were real for these Jews. But as we have seen, these attractions went no deeper than appealing to that innate desire in all mankind to seek one’s own glory and honor. To remain in Judaism meant you honored your family, you did well for yourself in the Jewish community, and you brought honor to yourself with law keeping. And, to leave Judaism for Christ meant you lost all worldly prestige and reputation in the Jewish community, you risked persecution and martyrdom, and even the Romans would think you’re weird—but, you get the glory and honor of Christ.
And, that’s where our passage really comes in—with an appeal to the glory of Mount Zion over the glory of Mount Sinai. You might say that this passage sets straight the damning knowledge which the Jews had of God and the law. Mount Sinai and the law doesn’t save you, oh mistaken Israel! It should terrify you and drive you to Christ who suffered on Zion, and rose to the heavenly Zion!
So, let’s consider hear the details of God’s appeal for us to remain in Zion.
Consideration #3: God’s Appeal to Mount Zion
The first thing Hebrews does is set these wavering Jews right in the way they understand their own religion. Look again at how Hebrews describes Sinai in verses 18–21,
[In coming to Christ,] you have not come to what may be touched…
Then, what does it say? “a letter of the law that you can study and use to make yourself look good before God and your community”? Again, that’s the struggle these Jews were having. But Hebrews sets things straight—
You have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest 19 and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. 20 For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”
That’s how God introduced the law to his people. Now, what do you think he was saying, here, in this introduction to the law? The Jews had completely forgotten the terrors of Sinai.
These verses are nothing more than a direct reference to Exodus 19, and Deuteronomy 5—both are accounts of this event on Sinai. In Exodus 19 and 20, you get exactly that story. God calls his people to this mountain in the middle of the desert in order to meet with them and enter into a covenant relationship with them. Verse 5, “if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”. Sounds pretty amazing—they’d be the most honored nation in all the world. Again—“if you will obey my voice and keep my commandments”.
So, to enter into this relationship, God meets with his people on Sinai. It takes three days of preparation for this event. Three days of consecration—washing garments and keeping clean from sin and impurities. Not only this, but they had to build fences around a mountain as God instructed, so that nobody would come near the mountain as it held God’s glory in fire and smoke. To come near it would mean death. The message was clear—God is a holy God, and his people are not. God is an all-consuming fire who consumes sin and the sinner—even if that sinner would be consecrated.
In the words of Hebrews which we read a few weeks ago, “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”.
But the story doesn’t end there. God descends and the Mountain is consumed with smoke as God had said. Then, he speaks. He speaks loud, and every Israelite heard it. He spoke what we know to be the 10 commandments. When the Israelites heard his voice, they were so terrified that, again, in the words of Hebrews, “they begged that no further words would be spoken to them”. Now, what Hebrews is referring to here is not that they begged God to stop talking altogether. They begged that God would stop talking to them. The way Deuteronomy 5 tells this story makes it really clear what happened. Israel hears God’s voice, and they realize they are in way over their heads. They send their elders to Moses in order to have a chat—“this is too much, we can’t bear hearing God’s voice like this”. Verse 24 says, “Today we have seen God speak with man, and man still live. Now therefore why should we die? For this great fire will consume us. If we hear the voice of the LORD our God any more, we shall die.” Then in verse 27, the elders of Israel say to Moses “[You, Moses,] go near and hear all that the LORD our God will say, and then you speak to us all that the Lord our God will speak to you, and we will hear it and do it”.
Do you see what hearing and seeing God on Sinai does to you? Do you see what hearing God’s law from God will do to you? It breaks you—it threatens your life. And even more—it drives you to an understanding that if you are going to dwell with God and enjoy his blessings, you need a mediator between you and him, lest you die.
That’s what the law does. That’s what Sinai is all about. Where was the Israelite’s zeal for their righteousness and piety on that day? Well, when you are before God, with nothing to stand between you and God speaking law to you, there is no room to take pride in your zeal and your righteousness.
The Jews of Jesus’s day who desired Sinai and the law of Moses had forgotten this. This picture of Sinai in our Hebrews passage is meant to be a reminder to these Jews that excusing themselves from Christ is to return to that Sinai.
But if you look again at our passage, verse 25 reminds us that excusing yourself from Christ is not simply returning to the terrors of Sinai. Now that Christ has come in all his glory—the stakes are even higher. Verse 25 and following says—
“do not excuse yourself from 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’”.
In other words, the Messiah has been exalted in heaven and he is ready to put an end to all his enemies, and to everything that is characterized by the curse. You thought Sinai was terrifying—when God first shook the earth from Sinai? Wait until he shakes the Earth from Zion. You better have a mediator standing between you and him.
So, the first part of God’s appeal for us to desire Mount Zion over Mount Sinai is to simply show that Mt. Sinai offers a law that condemns you. Mt. Sinai should terrify you—the thought of approaching God on the basis of the law should break you and make you call out for a mediator to stand between you and God.
So, this of course brings us to the second part of God’s appeal for us to desire Mount Zion over Sinai—this mediator you need is offered to you from Zion, and he brings all of God’s blessings with him. Verse 22 and following of our passage says that in Christ you come not to a terrifying mountain that is billowing with smoke, but you come to Mount Zion which is billowing with praises to God for his grace and glory, from the lips of angels and the assembly of the firstborn, and the spirits of the righteous saints who have been made perfect. You have come to a Mountain that is not surrounded with God’s people at its base, but rather inhabited by God’s people as a city on a hill—the very heavenly Jerusalem. God’s people are on God’s mountain, enjoying him forever. And, all of this is because of his faithful ministry to you—not your faithfulness to him. Verse 24 says that you have come to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. Like Mount Sinai, Abel’s blood speaks a word that justice needs to be met. Jesus’s blood on Mount Zion, however, speaks a word that justice has been met—God’s wrath against you is satisfied.
4. Our Application: What Do We Do About It?
So, let’s think about summarizing all this in an application—what do we do about this? Well, again, don’t excuse yourself from him who is speaking to you from Zion. He’s speaking a serious word to you—receive Jesus’s blood, forgiveness of sins, and all the blessings therein; or receive Jesus’s wrath when this world is shaken on the last day.
It is far too easy to excuse ourselves from Christ. Again, the Jews did it because they were distracted by the glory of the law and their self-righteousness. We do it because we’re distracted by the world. We think that the best use of our time is spent tending to the things of this world rather than to our souls, and to God’s worship. but again—Ephesians 5, “make the best use of your time… being filled with the spirit”—that is, pursuing the Spirit, receiving his truth and his fruit by faith as you are “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart”. I can’t say it enough—worshipping God and seeking his blessings is the best use of your time. Always. It directs your soul to God, and to his faithfulness to you. He will care for you. He will provide for you. And, he will give you the love, joy, peace patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control which you need. That’s what Hebrews is all about—the gospel, the good news about how faithful God is to you in Christ.
And, that’s where our passage takes us today. After everything we’ve looked at in our passage, verse 28 concludes by saying “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”.
God is a consuming fire—what’s the best way you stay out of the fire? Be grateful to him for what he’s done for you. Offer acceptable worship to him through the blood of Christ which makes your worship acceptable. If you focus on worship, then you will be focusing on his grace that demands worship. Your eyes will be off yourself, your righteousness, your zeal and passion, and you will be fixated on his grace, that you will worship him for it. And, that is what God wants of you. It’s the best use of your time. It should be your driving mentality in everything you do—whether it's the Sunday worship service, or time with your family, or when you're at work. Worship God, trusting he accepts your worship and work only through Christ's blood and righteousness.
So, join the worship assembly on Zion, to which you “have come” by faith. Join the innumerable angels, and the assembly of the firstborn in heaven. Meet with God through Christ’s precious blood, and watch him care for you, for he has made you part of his unshakable kingdom.