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“The Two Ways”

Hebrews 12:12-29
Bob DeGray
April 21, 2002

Key Sentence

The fearful, fiery presence of God is glorious for those who come through the grace of Jesus.


I. The straight way vs. wandering (Hebrews 10:12-17)
II. Mt. Sinai vs. Mt. Zion (Hebrews 10:18-24)
III. The unshakeable kingdom vs. the consuming fire (Hebrews 12:25-29)


        Hebrews 12 has some of the richest visual language of the entire New Testament. That may be why John Bunyan made so many allusions to it in ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress.’ For example, Christian, the pilgrim with the burden on his back, encounters a Worldly Wiseman, who gives evil advice: “In yonder village, named Morality, there dwells a gentleman whose name is Legality, a very judicious man who has skill to help men off with burdens such as your. You may go to him and be helped. Do you see this hill? You must go over it and the first house you come to is his.”

        So Christian turned out of his way to go to Mr. Legality's house for help; but when he got close to the hill, it seemed so high, the sides so steep and overhanging that Christian was afraid to go further, lest the hill should fall on his head. He stood still and didn’t know what to do. Also his burden now seemed heavier to him than it had been. There came also flashes of fire out of the hill, that made Christian afraid of being burned. He quaked with fear and was sorry he had taken Worldly Wiseman's counsel. Then he saw Evangelist coming to meet him; at the sight he began to blush for shame. So Evangelist came and looked on him with a severe countenance.

        Evangelist: Did I not show you the way to the little wicket_gate? How is it, then, that you are so quickly turned aside? For you are now out of the path.

        Christian: I met with a gentleman who persuaded me that I might, in the village before me, find a man that would take off my burden. So I came, but when I saw this hill, and how it hangs over the path, I had to stop lest it should fall on my head.

        Evangelist: Listen to the word of God: “See that you do not refuse him that speaks. For if they did not escape who refused him that spoke on earth, much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from him that speaks from heaven.” You have begun to reject the counsel of the Most High and turn away from him. You risk judgment.

        Then Christian fell at his feet crying, “Woe is me, for I am undone!” But Evangelist caught him by the hand, saying, “All manner of sin and blasphemies shall be forgiven unto men. Be not faithless, but believing.” Then Christian revived a little, and stood up trembling, asking “What must I do.”

        Evangelist replied: You have rejected the counsel of God for the counsel of a Worldly Wiseman. He sent you for relief to the man named Legality who dwells here behind Mount Sinai, which you have rightly feared will fall on your head. This Legality is not able to set you free from your burden for you cannot be justified by the works of the law. Therefore, Worldly Wiseman is an enemy and Legality is a cheat.

        After this, Evangelist called to the heavens for confirmation of what he had said: and with that there came smoke and fire and a voice out of the mountain under which poor Christian stood, so that he trembled again with fear and his hair stood on end.

        There is, as Bunyan implies, a right way and a wrong way to come into the presence of God. Coming into God’s presence the wrong way leads to fear and fire and an expectation of judgment. But Hebrews 12 teaches that the same fearful, fiery presence of God is glorious if we come through the grace of Jesus Christ. That’s what we want to see this morning by looking at the contrasts in Hebrews 12:12-29.

I. The straight way vs. wandering (Hebrews 10:12-17)

        The first contrast is between the straight way and wandering. Hebrews 12:12 Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. 13"Make level paths for your feet," so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed. Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. 15See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. 16See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. 17Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. He could bring about no change of mind, though he sought the blessing with tears.

We’ve often been encouraged in Hebrews to persevere through the trials and difficulties of life. The phrase “strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees” continues the image of a race of faith which we run with our eyes fixed on Jesus. But here we picture a runner who has ‘hit the wall’. One marathoner described it like this: “By now the rigors of having run nearly twenty miles are beginning to tell. My stride has shortened. My legs are tight. My breathing is shallow and fast. My joints are becoming raw and worn. Half-dollar-size blisters sting the soles of my feet. I’m beginning to feel queasy and light-headed. I want to stop. I have hit the wall.”

        In the Christian life there are times you hit the wall, when your spiritual arms and legs are so tired, so worn down that you don’t even want to have the energy to go on. Our author’s encouragement comes straight from Scripture. Isaiah says “Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, Be strong, do not fear; your God will come.” This is not only an encouragement to self discipline, ‘you run tough’, because it actually says ‘run tough together.’ The command is plural, implying that the community of individuals helps each other be strong, that those presently strong hold up those who are weak.

        The next phrase has the same implication. “Make level paths for your feet, so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.” The ones who are strong are the ones who level the paths for those who are weak. They straighten the route so that the one with faltering steps will not fall. The application is that we should not only finish the race, but also help others to finish.

        In a recent NCAA cross_country championship 123 of the 128 runners missed a turn. One competitor, Mike Delcavo, stayed on the course and began waving for fellow runners to follow him. He was able to convince only four others to go with him, but Delcavo and those four were the winners of the race.

        Verse 14 reminds us of the goals of the race: “make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy.” It’s intriguing, but typical of the way God works, that the two things we are to strive after here are also God’s goals when he disciplines us. Back in verse 10 we saw that God ‘disciplines us for our good, so we may share His holiness.’ And verse 11 ‘discipline produces a harvest of righteousness and peace.’ It makes sense that we should pursue the things God is trying to instill in us, that we should make every effort toward the peace and holiness he desires. Verse 14 adds that without holiness no one will see God. The goal of our race is rest in the presence of God, but we will not enter his presence without holiness. So if we are not pursuing holiness we are wandering from the straight path.

        The author gives a couple of examples of what that wandering might look like. The most significant one is at the beginning of verse 15: “See to it that no one misses the grace of God” No New Testament writer ever wanders very far from grace, because even when the New Testament is exhorting us to great personal effort, it relies on God’s grace, the free gift of his favor and help. Kent Hughes compares God’s grace to a brimming pitcher in his hand, tilted to pour blessing on us. The writer of Hebrews has already said that we can “approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” We have no need that outstrips his grace. We never will. There is no sin that can overwhelm God’s saving grace offered to an unbeliever, there is no sin or need that can overwhelm his sustaining grace offered to a believer.

        Because of this, it is a tragedy to miss God’s grace - to wander from it. Hughes identifies three ways believers do this. First, through unconfessed sin. Lack of confession, in effect, places a hand against the tilted pitcher, preventing the outpouring of God’s favor. Second, by a self-imposed famine of God’s word. God sustains the lives of his people through his Word so that those who do not read and meditate upon it are in Hughes’ words, ‘self-condemned, to a state of spiritual anorexia’. The third way to gracelessness is staying away from church, the community in which God’s grace is supposed to be exhibited, displayed and experienced. Just as the command to strengthen the weak was a command to the whole group, so too this watching out for gracelessness is plural, done by the whole body for all the parts of the body.

        Because missed grace affects the whole body. The author warns believers to beware “that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” Bitterness is a living growing thing that though hidden can cause tremendous damage in a church, or a family for that matter. It is almost always a sign of unresolved conflict.

        A few years ago I was concerned about the roots of the live oak trees near our foundation. I knew if I didn’t do something those tiny roots could grow into large and powerful ones that though unseen could disrupt the very stability of my house. So I dug down and exposed those roots, and put a barrier in place underground to prevent the roots from reaching the foundation. In the same way we need to put a barrier of grace and forgiveness in front of bitterness so it can’t reach the foundation of our peace.

        Finally, the author warns against wandering away into sin and godlessness. Verse 16 says “See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son.” The Old Testament makes no specific mention of sexual immorality on the part of Jacob’s brother, though it does mention that he married two Canaanite women against his parent’s wishes. But the Bible makes it clear that the pursuit of sinful sexual pleasure is a significant wandering from the gospel of grace and always leads to trouble and sorrow. Sexual sin takes our eyes off Jesus and puts it on earthly things and on ourselves.

        Esau’s other sin was similar: he sold his birthright for a single meal. He had an inheritance that guaranteed him a place among God’s people but allowed his own earthly desire - greed, lust, gluttony, whatever you call it - to control his behavior and move him away from God. This is still a danger for believers today. It is easy to let the satisfaction of our own desires crowd out the commitment we once made to follow Jesus. John reminds us that “everything in the world__the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does__comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.” Esau never learned that, to his sorrow, but those who fix their eyes on Jesus and run the straight race do learn it, to their joy.

II. Mt. Sinai vs. Mt. Zion (Hebrews 10:18-24)

        So we’ve seen that we are to strengthen one another to follow Jesus; on a path defined by dependance on his grace; toward holiness, righteousness and peace. The alternative is to wander into the lonely dead-end of bitterness and sin. Here are two choices, and the way we choose, the way we approach God decides whether we find him to be a fearful judge or a glorious savior. Hebrews 12:18 to 24 18You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; 19to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, 20because they could not bear what was commanded: "If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned." 21The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, "I am trembling with fear." 22But 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, 23to 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, 24to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

There are two pictures of mountain-top events in these verses. The first is the historical and physical event that took place on Mt. Sinai, and that revealed God to be a fiery, fearful reality. The second is a present and spiritual event - a heavenly Mt. Zion that reveals God to be a righteous savior through his Son Jesus.

        Mt. Sinai isn’t named in these verses, but it is described from Exodus 19. It was a physical mountain that could be touched, but the people of Israel who camped in front of it after their rescue from Egypt weren’t allowed to touch it because it was made holy by the fearful, fiery presence of God. Exodus 19 says “On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him with thunder.” The people of Israel were physically confronted by the holiness and majesty of God. They recognized that his holiness qualified him to be a righteous judge of men’s hearts and lives.

        It was here that God gave the people of Israel the law - the ten commandments that defined his moral standard, a standard none of them could meet in their own strength, yet a standard they must meet if they wanted to remain in His presence. Sinai showed the people God’s holiness and the law showed them their sin. Hughes says: “to see that God is holy and that one is a sinner is to stand on the threshold of grace.”

        But the law, given on Sinai, did not in itself lead to faith or grace. To find those things the people of Israel needed to look back to God’s rescue in the Exodus, or further back to Abraham or forward to Christ. Instead, they rarely looked beyond Sinai, rarely got behind the law to their own sin and to the meaning of the sacrifices that pictured the sacrifice of Christ. So Sinai became not only an image of God’s holiness and judgment, but of man’s unwillingness to face his need for grace and forgiveness.

        Look at the contrast between Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion, the place of judgment and the place of joy: “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, 23to 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, 24to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” Mt. Zion is not a mountain with fences around it, but a place of worship which you enter with God’s people to be in God’s presence. Remember, the author has already said this is a mountain that cannot be touched: it’s a spiritual reality, not a physical one. But notice too that you come to this mountain in the present tense: it is a present reality for the believer.

        This heavenly reality is pictured as Mt. Zion, the hill David captured and made both his capital and the national center of worship. Jerusalem was built there. The ark of the covenant was brought there. Solomon built the temple there. If Mt. Sinai stands for the law, Mt. Zion stands for the sacrificial system that pictured the death of Christ on our behalf. The author implies that the answer to human need is not found in law but in sacrifice, not on Sinai but on Zion. But they are alike in this: they both stand for the presence of God - when we come to Zion we come into his presence by a new and living way, not in fear, but through the grace of Jesus Christ.

        As we enter this city we meet, first of all, angels. These are God’s servants who do his will and celebrate joyfully in his presence. In Scriptural scenes of heaven, there is always a multitude of angels. Daniel 7 “As I looked, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.” The scenes John paints in the book of Revelation are similar, with thousands of angels worshiping before the throne.

        Yet God’s presence consists of far more than angels. Hebrews already told us that “angels are ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation.” So as we go through the ranks of angels, we find fellow believers, the church of the firstborn whose names are written in heaven. Jesus is the firstborn from the dead, but by virtue of our union with him we also are firstborn, co-heirs of all he has inherited. As firstborn, our names are written in Heaven - we are officially accepted citizens of Mt. Zion When the living and the dead are judged, God will receive only those whose names are written in the book of life because they have believed in His Son.

        There is, after all, judgment going on here. The author says “You have come to God, the judge of all men.” The scene we are seeing is a joyous festival, but entrance into God’s presence is not a casual thing. On Mt. Zion we meet the God of Mt. Sinai, the judge of all. We understand from Hebrews 4 that “nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” We come before him in awe because he is the Judge, but not in terror because His son has taken the righteous judgment for us.

        In fact, the next group of people we come to are those gathered close to Jesus in gratitude for what he has done. These are ‘the spirits of righteous men made perfect’ and both the righteousness and the perfection come from the redeeming work of Jesus. He himself stands at the very center of the scene, the mediator of a new covenant. He is the author and perfecter of our faith, the one who went before us, the one who endured the cross and despised its shame and has sat down at the right hand of God in this heavenly sanctuary. At his feet and by his side are those he is not ashamed to call his brothers and sister for he is the one who has made them holy.

        Having fixed our eyes on him in this race of faith, we will joyfully worship him with all those who have crossed the finish line ahead of us: men and women made righteous and complete through his sacrifice. It is his sprinkled blood that speaks forgiveness to our souls. The blood of Abel, we saw in chapter 11, testifies to his faith. But the blood of Jesus speaks a better word - it testifies not just to an undeserved death, but to a multitude of triumphant lives, to his sacrifice and to our forgiveness. It is his shed blood that causes the angels to wonder and the redeemed to rejoice.

        So this heavenly festival has it’s focus on Jesus. On Sinai God showed his righteousness but on Zion Jesus shares his righteousness. On Sinai God gave the law that told us of our sin, but on Zion Jesus gives the blood that cleanses us from sin. On Sinai light was turned to darkness in the fearsome presence of the judge. On Zion darkness is turned to celebration in the joyful presence of the Savior. God has not changed between Sinai and Zion, but we have. The fearful, fiery presence of God has become glorious for those of us who come to it through the grace of Jesus.

        I don’t know what poet wrote the words that appear in the bulletin this morning: I couldn’t find an author in my commentaries or on-line. But R. Kent Hughes quotes these words as a summary of what these verses say, and for some reason they have touched my heart: To run and work the law commands; Yet gives me neither feet nor hands; But better news the gospel brings; It bids me fly, and gives me wings.

III. The unshakeable kingdom vs. the consuming fire (Hebrews 12:25-29)

        If the only way to live at peace with God is through Jesus, we’d better not try to do it any other way. To depend on the law, as Christian tried in Pilgrim’s Progress is to face judgment. When we come to God by the grace of Jesus we find an unshakeable kingdom. Any other way leads to a consuming fire. Verses 25 to 29: See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? 26At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, "Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens." 27The words "once more" indicate the removing of what can be shaken--that is, created things--so that what cannot be shaken may remain. 28Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, 29for our "God is a consuming fire."

        A few weeks ago in our adult Sunday school class Ravi Zacharias defended what he called ‘either/or’ logic. Much of Scripture is filled with the kind of reasoning that says either this happens or this happens. There are two alternatives and if one doesn’t occur the other must. Eternity, for every human being, is ‘either/or’. Either you have an unshakeable part in the eternal kingdom of God through the grace of Jesus, or you experience eternity as a consuming fire. Eternity will be glorious with God or awful because of his judgment. There is no alternative. Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

        The author of Hebrews argues from the lesser to the greater when he says “if those people who stood at Mt. Sinai did not escape judgment when they refused the one who warned them from earth, how much more will we be judged if we refuse the one who warns from heaven?” The people at Sinai refused God’s warning in several ways: first, after he spoke that day from the top of the mountain, they refused to hear his voice any further and made Moses go as their emissary. More significantly, they refused the ten commandments - if you remember, it was only days or at most weeks after this voice thundered that they made for themselves a golden calf to worship. They turned away from a God that was too big and tried to make a god they could get a handle on, one who would not judge with fire. But they could not escape his judgement those forty years in the desert - and all that generation died.

        In the same way, if we’ve been warned from heaven, from the lips of Jesus, that he is the only safe way to come to God, then we are playing with fire if we don’t respond. If you’re here today, and you have heard the good news that God loves you and that Jesus died for you and that he wants to rescue you by grace from sin and judgment, that all you need to do is give up on yourself and trust him; if you’ve heard that good news and haven’t accepted it, you are choosing judgment, as they did.

        There is a judgment coming. God has promised - the quote is from the prophet Haggai - that in a little while he will shake both the heavens and the earth. The ground shook at Sinai - shook at the sound of his voice, but the whole universe will shake in the revelation of his holiness yet to come. Every created thing will be shaken to utter purity in preparation for the new heavens and the new earth. Peter describes it this way: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.” Everything that has been corrupted by the fall will be purged.

        But what cannot be shaken will remain. The people of God, who have been given purity by the blood of Christ, are unshakeable even in that great shaking and we will remain while everything wrong, everything sinful, everything broken, everything fallen, everything unholy, impure, unrighteous will be shaken and destroyed. Only then will everything be made new. As John says “I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.” Those who have come to God through the grace of Jesus will inhabit this new heaven and new earth for all eternity. That’s an unshakeable kingdom.

        The bottom line for the either/or we’ve been discussing, the two ways, the straight path or the wandering, Mt. Sinai or Mt. Zion, the bottom line of both approaches to God is found in verses 28 and 29. To those who have put their faith in Christ and who are living in dependance on his grace and beginning now to experience the heavenly Zion, he says “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.”

        Our fearful fiery God is glorious because we come to him through the grace of Jesus. We no longer dread him, but worship with thanksgiving and reverence and awe. He has done everything for us. We respond with worship in everything we do and from everything we are. The heart response of those saved by grace must never be indifference to God or contemptuous familiarity but rather awe of God and worship of God and thanksgiving to God for who he is and what he has done in Jesus.

        But those who have not come to God, or who have tried to come to him on their own terms or their own merit - those who have missed his grace and clung to a life of sin and selfishness, those who have lived in the shelter of Mt. Sinai in the false confidence of legalism, need to hear verse 29 ‘our "God is a consuming fire."’ There is judgment to come. Those who are unshaken will glory in the grace of God. Those who are shaken will be consumed by fire. It’s an either/or proposition. Will you come to God his way, through trusting the grace of Jesus? Or not? God who loves you asks you to come.