Set Your Sights on Zion!
O Lord God, our dear heavenly Father, we come before You this day and implore Your blessing. Lead us in the way we are to go. Move us to repent of all of our sins, to rejoice in Your forgiveness, and to live in godly faith and obedience. Prevent Satan from misleading us in any way and bring us finally to Your heavenly home. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Isaiah speaks of the end of time when God will gather all peoples before His throne of judgment. He will create a “new heavens” and “new earth” for those who believe, but for those who have rejected Him, He maintains “their worm does not die.”
Jesus speaks of the end of time and urges us “to enter through the narrow gate.” He warns us that now is the time to follow Him in faith, for the time will come when it is too late—when the door is shut and He will say to all who knock, “Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity.”
Text: Hebrews 12:18-24
For you have not come to the mountain that may be touched and that burned with fire, and to blackness and darkness and tempest, 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. (For they could not endure what was commanded. “And if so much as a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned; or shot with an arrow.” And so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I am exceedingly afraid and trembling.”) But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and the church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.
In Christ Jesus, who urges us to ascend Mount Zion and be blessed, dear fellow redeemed:
The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews faced one overwhelming concern in the first century of our Christian era—many Jewish Christians of that day were being tempted to give up their Christian faith and return to Judaism in order to avoid persecution. Were that writer alive today, I believe that he would have that same overwhelming concern for many twenty-first century Christians. However, I do not believe that he would be worried about those Christians today facing physical persecution in Africa and Asia. Rather, it is the church at ease both in Europe and North America where Christians seem willing to give up their faith and compromise their convictions.
Many Christians today want the world’s acceptance. They do not want to appear to be old-fashioned—adhering to a strict code of morality, or uneducated—actually believing that the Bible is absolute truth, or intolerant—maintaining that there is only one true God, or unloving—confessing that without faith in Jesus Christ there is no salvation. Consequently, many Christians are in real danger of falling away from saving faith and losing their eternal salvation.
What can be done? The very best thing that we can do is continue to use the word of God to present to all the contrast between spiritual truth and spiritual error. The writer to the Hebrews assures us, “The word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (4:12). Throughout this epistle he provides such contrasts between the truths of God and the errors of this world and of Satan. In our text he portrays the contrast between the law and the gospel as a means of salvation, symbolized by two mountains that played an important role within the history of God’s Old Testament people: Mount Sinai and Mount Zion. His use of symbolism, so obvious to his first century audience, however, may not seem so obvious to us in the twenty-first century. Yet upon examination it points out the essential difference between truth and falsehood, between law and gospel, between salvation and damnation, between heaven and hell! Dear friends, listen and SET YOUR SIGHTS ON ZION!
Don’t climb Mt. Sinai with its “law” condemnations! Mt. Sinai was the mountain to which Moses led the children of Israel after their escape from Egypt and from which God gave Israel His law. With reference to Mt. Sinai the writer to the Hebrews 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, 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. (For they could not endure what was commanded. ‘And if so much as a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned; or shot with an arrow.’ And so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I am exceedingly afraid and trembling.’)”
To what is the writer referring? If you have an opportunity this week, read Exodus 19-20, which provides the context to which the writer to the Hebrews refers. Moses led the children of Israel to Mt. Sinai. There he prepared them to meet their God. As Israel camped below the mountain on what no doubt was a bright, sunny day with a clear vista of the grandeur of Mt. Sinai, God told Moses to inform the people, “I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:4-6). The response of the people was what we in many respects would hope it would be. They promised, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do!” (Exodus 19:8) They were ready, willing, and desirous to follow their God, but also spiritually naive! They thought they could do what God would demand. How different things would appear just three days later.
On the day appointed by Moses for the people to meet their God, we are told, “In the morning there were thunderings and lightnings, and a thick cloud on the mountain; and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled…. Now Mt. Sinai was completely in smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire. Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly” (Exodus 19:16,18). God then commanded that no one should even approach the mountain lest they perish, and He commanded that any animal that would chance to set foot on the mountain be destroyed. The result was that the people were filled with great fear and told Moses, “You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die” (Exodus 20:19). Moses, whom our text tells us was likewise filled with fear, responded, “Do not fear; for God has come to test you, and that His fear may be before you, so that you may not sin” (Exodus 20:20).
My dear friends, what did all this mean? What point did the writer to the Hebrews want to bring to bear upon the minds and hearts of those first century believers? What are we as twenty-first century Christians to learn? He wanted to remind those Jewish believers contemplating a return to Judaism, even as he would remind us, that to leave Christ behind, means to embrace a religion of laws, the demands of which cannot be met and which will inevitably result in fearsome judgment.
God’s law demands perfection. There is no curve. There is no leniency. “You shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). There is no compromising on the holiness God’s law demands. There is no built-in fudge factor. You cross the line and violate God’s holiness even one time and the result is death! The Jewish Christians of the first century thought they could abandon Jesus and return to the laws of Moses, but they could not keep those laws and so would be condemned by those laws. Christians today may well be tempted to believe that as long as they are fairly moral people…as long as they try reasonable hard to be good…as long as they do their good deed each day…then they will be alright without Christ. Wrong! If you are going to climb Mt. Sinai and embrace a theology that proclaims that salvation can be obtained by keeping the law, then you must climb to the very top—the pinnacle of perfection, for if you slip even once—you will die in your sin. As the apostle Paul states so clearly, “The wages of sin is death!” (Romans 6:23). That, my friends, is the reason why the writer of this epistle tells us don’t climb Mt. Sinai with its “law” condemnations! To do so will deprive you of all of the joy, comfort, and confidence that the gospel brings you!
Rather, do climb Mt. Zion with its "gospel" consolations! There was another mountain in Israel’s history, which was not covered by fire and smoke, but rather became the capital city of God’s Old Testament people and the home to God’s temple. Each morning and each evening blood sacrifices were offered in that temple and believers would gather for worship and prayer. Their focus was not on the laws of God, which they were fully aware they could not keep, but rather upon His gospel promise. The LORD had told Abraham long before his descendants, the children of Israel, had ever approached Mt. Sinai, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). A promised Savior would come. Isaiah had promised that He would not only be an eternal King (cf. 9:7), but also a suffering “Servant” who would bear our griefs and carry our sorrows, who would be wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities (cf. 52:13; 53:4-5). Those blood sacrifices were intended to be a constant reminder of what the Savior would do for all people—the price He would have to pay to remove our sins.
In our text it is explained in this way, “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and the church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.”
Let us examine each of those phrases. By faith you and I have “come to Mount Zion.” Mt. Zion is used in Scripture to symbolize a number of wonderful things. It is used to symbolize heaven as the abode of God and His heavenly angels—thus it is called “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” and the place where “an innumerable company of angels” dwell. It is used to symbolize the church militant here on earth and the church triumphant in heaven—thus we are encouraged to join “the general assembly and the church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven.” When you and I by faith entrust ourselves to Jesus, then while God remains the “Judge of all,” as our text calls Him, He is not a judge we have to fear, for He declares us justified in His sight—cleansed of our sins for Jesus’ sake, “perfect” in God’s eyes. Jesus then becomes our “Mediator of the new covenant.“ He shed His blood for us to remove our sins. His blood, therefore, does not call out for vengeance as Abel’s did after he was murdered by his brother Cain. Rather, it is a cleansing flood, washing away our sins and guilt and freeing us from eternal judgment and damnation. When we ascend Mt. Zion we find there not Satan using the condemnations of God’s law to reveal our failures, but rather we find Jesus welcoming us with a new covenant of grace and mercy. That covenant is contained within the Lord’s Supper we will soon receive. Yes, we will receive the very body and blood of our blessed Savior, as the special assurance of His presence, His forgiveness, and His blessing in our lives.
My dear friends, do you see the contrast? It is so important to do so. There is no greater contrast than that between Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion—law versus gospel, condemnation versus consolation, certain judgment verses certain absolution, death versus life, fear versus joy, hopelessness versus hope, uncertainty versus certainty! These were the choices those first century Jewish believers were facing. These are the choices you and I face today. Do not allow the temptations of this world to dissuade you from the path the Spirit of God would have you travel. Do not give up the forgiveness, the hope, the joy, and the certainty of God’s gospel word! Rather, let us join our hands in praise to our Savior God and by His grace and through His power continue ascend Mt. Zion until that day when we behold with our own eyes our glorious God, his heavenly hosts, and the face of our dear Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
—Pastor Paul D. Nolting